A blister on his throwing hand took away his top two pitches for much of second-seeded Crimson Tide’s NCAA Tallahassee Regional elimination game against fourth-seeded Savannah State, but he managed to throw seven scoreless innings.
Add two throw-outs to home plate, one that squelched the potential tying run in the bottom of the eighth inning, and Alabama had what it needed to advance, 3-2, in Florida State’s Dick Howser Stadium.
“This time of the year, you’ll take an ugly win, and that’s certainly what it was today, but give credit,” Alabama coach Mitch Gaspard said. “I thought Mike Oczypok was tremendous today.”
That Oczypok made it seven innings helped the Tide (35-27) preserve its bullpen for games to come.
Alabama will play third-seeded Troy on Sunday at 11 a.m. Troy fell 11-0 to top-seeded Florida State in Saturday's winners' bracket final.
The Alabama-Troy winner will advance to the final round against Florida State, starting Sunday at 4 p.m. If another game is needed, it will be Monday at 4 p.m.
The Tide fell into the elimination bracket Friday, in a 5-2 loss to Troy.
Alabama coach Mitch Gaspard said his next two pitchers up will be regular starters Spencer Turnbull (4-3, 3.75 ERA) and Justin Kamplain (1-0, 4.77). The order will depend on the opponent.
“Those are two real quality starters that are available right now,” Gaspard said. “Obviously, it’s one game at a time right now, but we feel pretty good where we are pitching, particularly starting pitching right now.
“We’ve got our two and our three sitting there ready to go, and really, stuff wise, they probably have the best stuff that we have on our team.”
Savannah State finished 33-23 after making its first NCAA appearance as a Division I school and first since going 0-2 in the Division II tournament in 1999.
“Give credit to Alabama,” SSU coach Carlton Hardy said. “The pitcher went out and threw seven strong innings, and they brought in their guy to close the ballgame.
“I thought we battled well. We gave ourselves a chance.”
The Tigers made it interesting with two runs off Alabama reliever Tucker Hawley in the bottom of the eighth, scoring on Kevin Herlihy’s single and pinch hitter Drew Quinney’s double high off the right-field wall.
Savannah State had the tying run on third base with no outs, but Hawley struck out David Richards, then second baseman Kyle Overstreet charged Parker Nix’s sacrifice bunt attempt and flipped to catcher Brett Booth to retire pinch-runner Jason Wynn.
“We got the bunt down, and they ran a play that I’ve seen in books, but I’ve never seen it ran in a game where the second baseman came in and charged,” Hardy said. “It was just a terrific play by Alabama.”
Hawley then stopped Chris Arnold’s hot grounder up the middle and flipped to first baseman Austen Smith for the third out.
“When that runner got to third, I just knew we were going to get out of it,” Alabama third baseman Kenny Roberts said. “Tucker, he’s an older guy. I trust that he’s going to step up and make big pitches.”
Reliver Ray Castillo came on to pitch a scoreless ninth inning for his 12th save of the season, setting Alabama’s all-time freshman record.
Alabama prevented another Savannah State run when right fielder Ben Moore threw home off David Richards’s single in the sixth inning. Booth applied the tag to Todd Hagen.
Savannah State had runners in scoring position in the third, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth innings but only managed to score in the eighth.
“Again, give credit to their starting pitcher,” Hardy said. “When we got guys in scoring position, he went to his breaking ball and threw some quality pitches, and their guys made plays behind him.”
Oczypok (5-2), who impressed by going 8 2/3 innings against top-ranked LSU while making his first SEC start in the league tourney, spread out six hits Saturday. He struck out four batters with one walk and a hit batsman.
He did it despite not being able to use his top two pitches, the two-seam fastball and splitter. A blister that developed in the LSU game got worse as Saturday’s game played out.
“My trainer did a great job getting it ready for each inning, ever since, like, before the game and throughout the whole game, when it really started to rip open,” Oczypok said. “Then the last inning, it literally just ripped open.”
Oczypok went with a four-seam fastball and mixed it with a curve. He threw 63 strikes in 97 pitches.
“We were actually going to take him after the fifth (inning), and he said he could get through it,” Gaspard said. “(Team trainer) Joe (Hoffer) did some pretty good work on him, and the sixth went pretty good.
“We tried to get one more and did. It was kind of one of those where we were trying to get what we could out of him, and the thing was he continued to throw the ball and make good pitches.”
Meanwhile, Alabama produced just enough offense.
The Crimson Tide took a 2-0 lead on Smith’s run-scoring double and Booth’s sacrifice fly to left field in the top of the fourth inning off Savannah State starter Jack May (5-4). Overstreet and Mikey White singled ahead of them.
The Tide added a run on Georgie Salem’s fifth-inning single, which followed Roberts’ second double of the day.
Roberts added a single to match a career-high three-hit day. Doing it on the biggest stage helped to balance a season of hard-hit balls right at defenders.
“It felt pretty good to get the hits and straighten them out a little,” he said. “I am happy they got down.”
Gaspard, seeking to boost Alabama’s hitting in the regional, said he’s considering shaking up the batting order. He specifically mentioned moving Roberts down from the leadoff spot.
“Kenny is red hot,” Gaspard said. “He’s swinging the bat really well, and he’s hit all weekend with nobody on base, in the leadoff hole.
“That’s one potential change, to try to get him somewhere in the middle where some guys are on in front of him and he can drive some runs in. We’ve just got to get some guys going.”
Sports columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576, email@example.com. On Twitter @jmedley_star.