Hunter Pitches Alabama to SEC Championship

ROLLTIDEDOTCOM
ROLLTIDEDOTCOM

ROLLTIDEDOTCOM

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Tommy Hunter is not only the winningest freshman pitcher in the history of University of Alabama baseball, but he has also pitched the Crimson Tide to an SEC-leading 14th SEC Championship with a 5-1 win over the Tennessee Vols in the final game of the 2006 regular season on Saturday night in Knoxville.

The Indianapolis, Ind., native won his ninth game of the season to set the single-season freshman record at UA and tossed his third shutout of the season as the Tide swept the Vols to cap an improbable weekend in Knoxville.

Hunter (9-3), who is now the winningest freshman pitcher in Tide annals, held UT to one run and six hits in nine innings, with no walks and four strikeouts.  He lost his shutout when UT catcher Kelly Edmundson hit a two-out home run in the ninth inning to make the final score 5-1.

Hunter bounced back and retired Brain Van Kirk on a ground out to UA senior first baseman Spencer Pennington who stepped on the bag for the final out as the celebration began.

"Tommy Hunter did a great job," Alabama head coach Jim Wells said, following his celebratory Gatorade bath outside the UA dugout.  "He dominated the game.  He was really fired up all day, like he was going to play a football game.  I had to calm him down.  He did a great job.  He is as good a freshman as you'll ever see."

Alabama (39-17, 20-10 SEC) completed its three-game sweep of the Vols and also got help from Georgia, who took two of three from Kentucky in Athens this weekend to allow the Crimson Tide and Wildcats to tie with identical 20-10 records.

The Crimson Tide earned the No. 1 seed at this week's SEC Tournament at the Hoover Met (May 24-28).  Alabama will play No. 8 seed LSU on Wednesday at 5 p.m.  No. 4 seed Arkansas and No. 5 seed Ole Miss are also in the UA's bracket and their game is slated for 8 p.m.

"This is the most amazing thing that I have ever been a part of," Wells said.  "If you had to put your finger on one thing, we have always had good starting pitching.  We just have a lot of blue collar guys.

"Matt Downs developed into a fine hitter this year and was a great leader.  Pennington had an excellent year and got better this year after three years of football."

It was Pennington and Downs that inched the Crimson Tide closer to the championship.

Pennington and Downs both homered in a three-run eighth inning that turned a two-run lead into a five-run cushion for Hunter.

Alabama struggled with UT started Duente Heath, who limited UA to two runs (one earned) and eight singles in seven innings.  He added two walks and four strikeouts.  He was still in the low-to-mid 90s with his fastball when he departed his first career SEC start after throwing 100 pitches.

The Vols turned the game over to Josh Lindblom, a summer league teammate of Hunter with the Indiana Bulls.  Pennington greeted the freshman right-hander with a first-pitch home run that hit the scoreboard in right field that extended UA's lead to 3-0.

"The seniors really came together and I thank God for this opportunity," Pennington said.  "We have had our share of ups and downs and the hard work has paid off.  This is the greatest thing that has happened to me and it means the world to me to win the SEC Championship at Alabama."

After two quick outs, Salem reached on a single to right and Downs ripped a two-run home run into the empty bleachers in left field for the 5-0 lead.  Downs home run came after he had stayed alive by fouling off a 3-2 pitch just before launching his sixth home run of the season.

"I was looking for a fastball," Downs said.  "He had fooled me with a couple of change ups early in the count.  I was just looking for a base hit to get Salem home and make it a four-run game.  He left the fastball up and got a good swing."

The two home runs broke open a tight game that saw Hunter and Heath matched zeroes for four innings before the Crimson Tide finally broke through with an unearned run in the top of the fifth inning to grab a 1-0 lead.

Paiml led off the inning with a single up the middle and took second base when Salem's ground ball was booted by first baseman Chris Kemp.  Downs then laid down his team-leading 10th sacrifice bunt of the season to move Paiml and Salem into scoring position with one out.  Avila then walked on a 3-2 pitch to load the bases.

Valverde then hit a grounder to third baseman Cody Brown, who retired Avila at second base.  Second baseman Michael Rivera's throw to first was low and Valverde was safe with the fielder's choice RBI as Paiml scored to make it a 1-0 game.

Alabama eked out another run in the sixth inning on Salem's two-out base hit up the middle on a 3-2 pitch.  The Crimson Tide had five base runners in the inning but managed the one run.  Rhoden drew a lead off walk and Pennington followed with a single through the right side of the infield.  Belcher reached on fielder's choice when slow roller to first base forced Pennington and second and sent Rhoden to third with one out.

Paiml then laid down a safety squeeze bunt that was fielded by first baseman Chris Kemp, who threw out Rhoden at home for the second out.  Salem then worked a full count and singled up the middle to score Belcher from second base to give Bama a 2-0 lead.

Tennessee stranded a two-out double in the fourth inning and a one-out double in the fifth.  The Vols best chance to score came in the sixth when Delmonico and Kemp reached on back-to-back singles, but Hunter bounced back to strike out J.P. Arencibia and then got Edmundson to rap into the inning-ending double play, his fourth of the series.

GAME NOTES:

*Alabama defeated Tennessee 5-1 to earn a share of the 2006 SEC Championship.  Alabama swept UT in the weekend series and made up two games in the standings as Kentucky (20-10) lost two out of three in Athens this weekend.  Alabama and Kentucky are co-champions with 20-10 league records.

*Alabama is the No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament following the tie-breaker.  UA and UK did not meet in the regular-season, but UA won two of three from No. 3 seed Georgia, while UK lost two of three.

*Alabama now owns a league-leading 14 SEC Championships.  LSU ranks second with 13 league titles. Florida and Miss. State are the only other two schools with 10 or more SEC titles.  Alabama's SEC Championships have come in 1934, 1935, 1936, 1938, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1947, 1950, 1955, 1968, 1983, 1996 and 2006.

*The Crimson Tide also won its 25th regular-season conference championship today.  Alabama has won seven Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association (1909, 1913, 1915, 1917, 1918, 1919 and 1920) titles, three Southern Conference (1924, 1930 and 1932) and 13 SEC (1934, 1935, 1936, 1938, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1947, 1950, 1995, 1968, 1983 and 1996) titles.

*Alabama clinched its 12th SEC Western Division championship with its 5-3 win over Tennessee on Friday night.  This is the third divisional title under head coach Jim Wells, who also directed Bama to Western Division pennants in 1996 and 2002.  The Crimson Tide won its first SEC Western Division championship in 1950 and then went on to defeat Kentucky three games to one to win the SEC Championship.  Alabama has won SEC Western Division titles in 1950, 1951, 1955, 1957, 1958, 1969, 1973, 1974, 1981, 1996 and 2002.  Only Florida (20) and LSU (13) have more divisional titles than Alabama.

*Alabama also earned its 20th SEC victory tonight.  UA had not had 20 conference wins since the 2002 season.  A win tonight would give Alabama its fifth 20-win SEC season.  Bama also won 20 games in 1996 (20-10), 1997 (20-9), 1999 (21-9) and 2002 (20-10).  The 1999 team holds the school record with 21 SEC wins.

*Alabama joins Florida as the only two schools to win baseball and softball championships in the same season.  Florida won the baseball and softball titles in 1998.  Alabama won both baseball and softball this year.

*The 2006 season marks the third consecutive year that the two SEC division champions did not play during the regular season.  Alabama and Kentucky did not play each other this season.  Florida and LSU (West co-champs) did not play in 2005 and Georgia and Arkansas did not meet in 2004.

*Alabama is 12-3 against the SEC East this season.

*Alabama is 11-10 (.523) on the road this season and with a win tonight, clinches it first winning road record since the 2000 (12-10) season.  UA is 8-7 (.533) in SEC road games and has not had a winning road record in league play since 1999 (8-7, .533).

*Bama is 9-4 (.692) in Hunter's 12 starts this season.  UA is 6-1 in his last six starts since April 9.  He had three SEC series-clinching wins over No. 1 South Carolina, Auburn and Florida and one SEC Championship-clinching win at Tennessee.  Hunter is 9-3 on the mound to set the single-season freshman record with nine victories.

*Alabama owns a 59-25 (.699) all-time lead over Tennessee in a series that dates back to the 1897 season.  Alabama recorded its first sweep in Knoxville since the 1981 season.  Bama owns a 19-13 lead in ghames played here in Knoxville and has won eight of the 11 series.  UA has 8-2 in the last 10 meetings with UT.

*Alabama was 5-0 against the Vols this season in football, basketball and baseball.