Baseball out to prove critics wrong

TUSCALOOSA _ When it came time to make a decision about where to play college baseball, Mikey White had no doubt that he wanted to attend the University of Alabama.

Austen Smith, now a junior, will be one of the power elements in the Alabama lineup.

“My dad played football here in the ’80s, so I was kind of in love with the school,” the freshman infielder said. “I just couldn’t see myself rooting for another team, playing for another team. I just always had that Alabama blood in me.

“The only other school to offer me was Auburn … I couldn’t really do that.”

This past weekend, White and the No. 4 recruiting class by Baseball America participated in their first spring workouts as practices for the 2013 season got under way at Sewell-Thomas Stadium. Also in their first “camp” on the Capstone are catcher Wade Wass, a junior-college transfer, and freshman pitcher Ray Castillo, whom like White were selected in the most recent Major League Baseball Draft.

Overall, the Crimson Tide returns 17 players, including four position starters and five starting pitchers while welcoming back junior pitchers Tucker Hawley and Taylor Wolfe.

After missing last season following Tommy John surgery -- and Hawley had a setback in the fall -- both hurlers are still working on getting their velocity back, but could potentially end up anchoring the rotation even though Alabama returns 84 percent of its innings pitched from 2011-12.

They include senior Charley Sullivan along with sophomores Jon Keller, Spencer Turnbull, Taylor Guilbeau, Justin Kamplain and Jake Hubbard – who were all essentially thrown in the SEC fire as rookies.

“That was our biggest Achilles heel last year, pitch count,” Coach Mitch Gaspard said. “We couldn’t get a starter through the fifth inning. Right now we’re throwing a lot more strikes.”

Among the everyday players, the Crimson Tide lost the leadership of center fielder Taylor Dugas and shortstop Jared Reaves, but sophomore outfielder Ben Moore, who hit .342 and was named a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American, is looking to provide more power.

Alabama coach Mitch Gaspard has another young team, but a lot more depth this season.

Alabama also returns position starters Brett Booth, Austen Smith and Kenny Roberts while a number of young players will try and work their way into the lineup.

“There are a talented group of freshmen on the team and the addition of a really good junior college catcher in Wade Wass,” Gaspard added. “There are eight or nine freshmen who can make an impact at some point.

“It’s a physical group that is mentally in a good place. We’re not going to have to force feed them like we did last year, they should have time to develop in a more positive manner.”

In 57 games at Meridian Community College, Wass hit .427 with 23 home runs, 18 doubles and 67 RBIs. He also walked 46 times and hit by 12 pitches to help give him a .568 on-base percentage, and threw out roughly 75 percent of would-be stealers.

Meanwhile, White, the son of former football guard Mike White, was named last year’s Mr. Baseball by the Alabama Sports Writers Association after batting .389 with nine home runs and 37 RBIs his senior year at Spain Park High School. He would like nothing better that to eventually form the next Josh Rutledge and Ross Wilson-type combination up the middle with freshman Kyle Overstreet, whom he’s been playing baseball with since they were 10 years old.

“The thing about these guys is that they play so well together,” Moore said. “With White and Overstreet in the infield, watching them turn double plays is unbelievable. Watching Georgie Salem chase down balls in the outfield is pretty amazing. He made one catch in the fall, I don’t know many guys in the country who could run down that ball.”

Alabama, which opens the season Feb. 15th when it hosts VMI, went 21-34 last season, 9-21 in league play and missed out on the Southeastern Conference Tournament in Hoover. It’s not one of the eight SEC teams to be ranked in the national preseason coaches’ poll that had Arkansas first, LSU third and South Carolina fifth.

“I think we’re capable of a lot, more than people are giving us credit for,” Moore said. “We have a lot of guys coming back who went through the crap. We don’t want to do that again, so we’re really motivated and we have a great freshmen class, with a couple of guys who are going to come in and help right away. I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people.”

They said it ...

Sullivan: We’re excited. Kind of went back to the drawing board after last year. Lot of ups, a lot of downs, just went back to working hard. We had a really good fall.”

Moore: “I went up to the Northwoods League in Minnesota and had about as good of a summer as you can ask for. Started a little slow but got hot and stayed hot, and really enjoyed playing up there.”

Gaspard: “Potentially this team has more depth and options than any team that we’ve had. Although it’s still a really young roster, I think there’s some talented guys and that’s what’s created so much competition. We’re truly two-deep at every position, with good players at all those spots. It should create a lot of moves that we can make as a coaching staff from a pitching standpoint and positionally as well.”

White: “It’s not like they’re going to haze us … I mean they shaved our heads, but it’s a great group of guys.”

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