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The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Holding all the aces: Alabama’s bullpen promises a bright future 

Courtesy of UA Athletics
Alabama Head Coach Patrick Murphy watches the game against Georgia Tech at Shirley Clements Mewborn Field in Atlanta, GA on Friday, Feb 9, 2024.

In a heartbreaking end to last season, No. 5 seed Alabama fell to No. 9 seed Stanford in an elimination game of the 2023 Women’s College World Series, and ace pitcher Montana Fouts finished her last game with the Crimson Tide. 

Fouts was the face of Alabama softball for five seasons, and her departure has been the most prominent story in the offseason.  

Head coach Patrick Murphy called Team 28 “the deepest pitching staff we’ve ever had,” and expressed excitement at the pitchers’ progression since their trip to Italy last July.  

“When we have six [pitchers]and they’re very capable,” Murphy said. “Why not use them all?” 

If last year’s Women’s College World Series finalists are any indication, it may be better to use them all.  

In Game 1 of the Women’s College World Series final, Florida State cycled through four pitchers before losing to Oklahoma 5-0. In a three-game series against Oklahoma State earlier last season, Florida State made seven pitching changes in 19 innings. 

This multi-pitcher model popularized by the Seminoles is commonly called bullpen style. Their pitching staff consists of different signature pitches and skill sets, and pitchers face the part of a lineup that they are likely to do the best against.  

Bullpen-style pitching isn’t a new concept; often teams will have two to three starting pitchers who divide starts across a season. What makes this style different, however, is how divided playing time is. A pitcher who starts a game is highly unlikely to finish it.  

A likely contributing factor to this change comes from the COVID-19 pandemic, when, after a midseason shutdown, the NCAA announced that students could extend their eligibility if their team was affected by the shutdown.  On March 30, 2020, the NCAA Division I council released an announcement explaining the change.  

The extension adds an extra year for the affected athletes, allowing them six years to complete their four seasons instead of five.  

This change has led to an increase in veteran batters who have faced the same pitchers their whole careers. This familiarity makes it harder for pitchers to achieve strikeouts, and thus changes had to be made.  

As Murphy gears up for the 2024 season, he is faced with a difficult decision. Alabama’s bullpen consists of graduate student Kayla Beaver, fifth year Lauren Esman, senior Jaala Torrence, redshirt junior Alex Salter, sophomore Alea Johnson and freshman Jocelyn Briski. Despite the variety of options, there isn’t a clear decision on whom to give the reins.  

“We really have not seen somebody in that moment in the sixth and seventh inning where it’s a 2-1 game, and we have a one run lead, and you got to go out and get six outs,” Murphy said.  

He explained that as competition among the sport equals out, he would be willing to experiment with using multiple pitchers within one game. 

“You can see games where it’s 2-3-2, 2-2-3, whatever it might be,” Murphy said. “If somebody has four or five lefties in a row, we have a leftie pitcher [Esman]. She’s got a nasty curveball.” 

Bailey Dowling, a senior infielder, discussed the shift from the perspective of a batter.  

“As a hitter it does make it a little bit more difficult, just because you can’t watch film on seven different pitchers before a weekend,” Dowling said.  

She explained that the focus shifts from the weaknesses on the mound to the weaknesses in the batter’s box.  

“That’s just knowing who you are as a hitter and what your skills are, and maybe knowing what you’re not so good at against pitchers,” Dowling said.  

As offenses continue to improve, teams will find new ways to innovate and remain competitive. The idea of an ace pitcher is far from extinct, but the introduction of relievers can soften the blow after Alabama lost Fouts. 

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