TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- A strange thing happened at Sewell-Thomas Stadium over the weekend: The Crimson Tide played fearless baseball.
Sweeping No. 23 Auburn with a 6-2 win on Sunday, the University of Alabama played a confident, undaunted brand of baseball. In short, they played nothing like the team that entered the series nine games below .500, in search of its second SEC victory of the year.
Against Auburn, the Tide swung freely at the plate, rounded wide on the base paths and attacked the ball on defense. There were spectacular double plays, double steals and run-scoring doubles. For the first time in 2012, it looked like Alabama was ready to fulfill on the promise of fielding a competitive baseball team.
Kenny Roberts, the highly touted junior college transfer that entered the series stuck in a 2-for-32 slump, busted out in a big way, going 4-for-10 with a grand slam and four RBIs. The offense that couldn’t come up with a timely hit, suddenly found the home run stroke, knocking out three round-trippers in the three-game series. Even the shaky bullpen held up its end of the bargain, pitching 12 innings of two-run baseball.
Through 28 games, the Tide couldn’t have been more of a mess. Coach Mitch Gaspard toyed with the lineup daily, looking for the right combination. Players pressed and the anxiousness showed. Alabama committed 37 errors over that stretch, allowing 22 unearned runs.
But beginning Monday, the attitude of the team changed. Alabama went on to win its midweek game against South Alabama and subsequently sweep Auburn.
“Monday it was a different feel,” senior shortstop Jared Reaves said. “It was like relaxing and just playing. We went out there Tuesday and jumped on South Alabama and basically kept it going.
“From base running, to defense, to swinging the bat, I feel like -- knock on wood -- we’re finally starting to catch our stride.”
Taylor Dugas, who went 6-for-13 in the three-game series, said he hopes the team has turned a corner after a rough start to the season.
“The first half was so rough. We went through so much,” Dugas said. “I think from here on out, we’re still a talented team. I think that all those struggles in the first half is only going to help us from here on out because we feel like we’ve pretty much been hit with everything in the face.”
Even freshman lefty Jon Keller sensed something was wrong after the Tide returned from a three-game series against Tennessee that saw Alabama lose three close games. Players talked about not catching breaks, but against Auburn it seemed as if they started creating their own luck, rather than sitting back and waiting for the tide to turn.
“Coming back from Tennessee we had some tough times,” Keller said. “We didn’t catch any breaks it seemed like. The hitters were down. The pitchers were down. Even the people in the bullpen.
“After winning against South Alabama, we knocked the runs in, we started getting the hits, we started making the plays.”
Brett Booth, who’s seen his name float up and down the lineup and flopped back and forth from catcher to third base during the first half of the season, said it felt great to play aggressive at the plate and in the field.
“When you start playing good and you start getting hits that picks up everything whether it’s aggressiveness, confidence, everything starts rolling,” Booth said. “When you’re on a losing steak it’s hard to play aggressive. It’s hard to push the envelope when you’re not playing good.”
Gaspard, who’s in the middle of his third season at Alabama, had taken some heat through first 28 games, with many fans voicing their frustration for the poor start. But against Auburn, the crowd at the Joe couldn’t have been more enthusiastic. Beating your in-state rival certainly helps, but playing exciting baseball does its part as well.
“Before the game, what we wanted to do was out-energy our opponent today,” Gaspard said. “We felt like coming off the game yesterday we had an opportunity to do that. I thought our guys had good energy all day and I thought we competed really hard throughout the entire weekend.”
With the win, the Tide improve to 13-19 overall and 4-8 in the SEC -- a far cry from competing for a spot in the postseason. But for a team that was looking for a spark, anything to get going, this week served as the jumping off point for something new.
“As Dugas said, the first 28 games we’ve put behind us. We’re 4-0 in the second half,” Gaspard said, flashing a grin. “When you go through a stretch like we have, you find a lot of different ways to create new parts to the season. ... We’ve put 28 behind us and we’re going to attack these next 24 like we did these last four.”