Coach Mitch Gaspard's strategy of holding Nick Eicholtz from his Saturday start paid off when the junior right hander threw 6.2 sparkling innings to lead the Tide to victory over Kentucky in their opening game of the SEC Tournament on Tuesday night. Eicholtz allowed three hits with two walks and three strikeouts while allowing two runs. Matt Foster relieved in the eighth with the tying run at second base and induced a ground ball to end the threat. Thomas Burrows followed, stranding the tying run in the eighth and striking out two among his four outs in earning his 12th save of the year. The win boosted the Tide's NCAA Regional hopes, improving their record to 32-24, 16-15 in conference.
Alabama jumped out early on Kentucky starter Zach Logue, scoring three times in the top of the second inning. Daniel Cucjen had a bases loaded walk to score the first run, and was followed by a two run single from Hunter Webb. UK finally broke through versus Eicholtz in the fourth, getting their first base runner, hit, and run in one fell swoop on a home run by first baseman Evan White.
'Bama loaded the bases in the top of the seventh with one out, but a strikeout and ground out kept the team from adding to the lead. Eicholtz issued a one out walk and a two out double in the seventh to cut the lead to 3-2, putting the tying run at second base. Foster recorded the out, and the first two outs of the eighth before an error gave the Cats life. Burrows came on and struck out Zach Reks to end the inning.
With a 3-2 lead in the ninth and looking for insurance, the Tide used a two out walk to Chandler Taylor and a long, no doubt home run by Will Haynie for the 5-2 lead that was the final margin. The home run was Haynie's team leading 10th of the year. Burrows got a strikeout, ground out and fly ball to end the game, and earn his 12th save of the season. Burrows, already the career saves leader for the Tide with 31, is now two short of the single season record of 14 held by Ben Short. Short is the father of current Tide infielder Connor Short.
The Tide looked good in all aspects of the game, with pitching, hitting and fielding all contributing to the victory. Eicholtz, Foster, and Burrows were dynamite on the mound, just as they have been most of the season. The trio combined to allow three hits with only two walks, and five strikeouts. Haynie and Webb both had three hits and drove in two runs to lead the offense, which had nine hits, with four walks and five strikeouts. Haynie's home run, his 10th, marked the first time since 2010 that a Tide player has had double digit dingers. Kent Matthes hit 28 in 2010 to lead the nation, and the next year the bats were changed. Cucjen made several sparkling plays at shortstop, and he, along with Cobie Vance, turned a key double play in the sixth inning.
'Bama used their successful formula of really good pitching, good defense and just enough offense to put the Cats away. More of the same will be needed as the play regular season SEC champ Mississippi State on Wednesday, again at 4:30 p.m., starting the double elimination part of the tournament. The Dogs are currently ranked third in the nation.
The Tide will send ace Geoffrey Bramblett to the mound to face the Bulldogs. MSU won the season series two games to one, and Bramblett was the losing pitcher in game one. State will start junior right hander Zac Houston. The game, as is all of the tournament, will be available on the SEC Network.
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