TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Freshman designated hitter Alex Avila hit a two-run home run and drove in a career-high four runs and freshman right-hander Tommy Hunter pitched seven strong innings to lead No. 12 Alabama to an 8-4 win over Florida in the final regular-season home game at Sewell-Thomas Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
The Crimson Tide scored six runs in the first seven runs in the first four innings and then held off the Gators in the final two innings for the series win. It was Alabama's first series win over Florida since 2002.
Alabama (36-17, 17-10 SEC) extended its lead to two games over second-place Arkansas and OIe Miss in the SEC Western Division race. Alabama's magic number to win its 11th divisional title is two games heading into the next weekend's final regular season series at Tennessee. Arkansas closes out the year at home with Auburn, while Ole Miss closes the schedule at Miss. State.
Florida (26-27, 8-19 SEC) was eliminated from SEC Tournament play and will close out the season next week at home against LSU.
Kentucky, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Ole Miss have all clinched SEC Tournament berths. Auburn and Florida have been eliminated.
Alabama scored seven runs in the first four innings to take a 7-1 lead.
"The main is that we played better," Alabama head coach Jim Wells said. "Over the course of the 35 at-bats, we were better. Our starting pitcher was certainly better today."
The scoring began in the first inning when Avila slammed a two-run home run to right field. Junior center fielder Emeel Salem led off the inning with a single and scored on Avila's fourth home run of the season.
Florida cut the lead in half with an unearned run in the second inning. Gavin Dickey was hit by pitch with one out and moved into scoring position on Brian LeClerc's slow-rolling ground out to Greg Paiml at short. David Cash then reached on a two-out error by Paiml and Dickey scored from second base to make it a 2-1 game.
Alabama broke the game open with four runs in the bottom of the third inning to chase UF starter Steven Porter. Paiml led off the inning with a four-pitch walk and was quickly erased when Salem reached on a fielder's choice. Matt Downs then reached on an error by shortstop Adam Davis to send Salem to third.
Salem scored and Downs moved to second base on balk as the Tide upped its lead to 3-1. Porter then unleashed a wild pitch to send Downs to third base before Avila lifted a sacrifice fly to left field to give UA a 4-1 lead.
Kody Valverde and Evan Bush followed with back-to-back doubles to chase Porter and extend the UA lead to 5-1.
Porter (2-1) was charged with six runs (three earned) on four hits in 2 2/3 innings. He added one walk and struck out one batter.
Rhoden drew a walk off reliever Darren O'Day and Pennington followed with a single to right to score Bush as the Crimson Tide took a 6-1 lead.
The Crimson Tide tacked on another run in the fourth inning with Avila driving in his fourth run of the game. Paiml reached on an infield single and was erased on Salem's fielder's choice. Downs followed with single through the left side of the infield to put runners at first and second. After a successful double steal, Avila grounded out to LaPorta at first base to score Salem and extend UA's lead to 7-1.
The six-run lead was more than enough for Hunter, who tied the Alabama single-season freshman record with his eighth win over the year.
The Gators did make it close in the eighth inning when LaPorta hit a three-run home run of Hunter to close the gap to 7-4. Hunter worked seven-plus innings and allowed four runs and seven hits, with no walks and four strikeouts.
David Robertson pitched the final two innings for his eighth save of the season. He allowed one hit, walked two and struck out two, including LaPorta to end the game in the ninth inning.
Bama added an insurance run in the eighth inning to take an 8-4 lead. Belcher drew a lead off walk and moved into scoring position on Paiml's sacrifice bunt. Salem reached on an infield single to send Belcher to third base with one out. Downs then laid down a safety squeeze for an RBI single to score Belcher from third base.
Alabama will close out the 2006 regular-season next weekend at Tennessee. The Crimson Tide and Vols will play Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. each day from Lindsey Nelson Stadium. The Saturday game will be televised live by CSS Sports.
*Alabama honored the mother's of the Crimson Tide players and the wives of the UA coaching staff prior to Sunday's game. All of the mom's and wives in attendance threw out the ceremonial first pitch. In addition, the first 500 mom's who entered the Joe on Sunday afternoon received a red or white carnation.
*Hunter tied the Alabama single-season freshman record with his eighth win of the year on Sunday. B.J. Green (1998), Scott Murphy (1999), Taylor Tankersley (2002) and Wade LeBlanc (2004) all won eight games as freshmen for the Crimson Tide.
*Alabama finished the 2006 regular-season with a 28-7 home record, including a 12-3 mark in SEC play. The 12 SEC wins are the second-most in school history since the league adopted the 30-game schedule in 1996.
*Salem had two stolen bases in Sunday's win over Florida to give him 30 stolen bases for the season. He is currently tied with Omar Fernandez (1997) for eighth place on the single season list.