What transpired at the Hoover Met Tuesday evening may or may not have been a Dayton basketball NCAA play-in type game, but Alabama and Coach Mitch Gaspard played like it was, especially defensively and on the mound. When the sun set on the western Hoover sky, it may have also set on Kentucky’s season, as the Crimson Tide downed the Wildcats, 5-2, to advance to the double elimination round of the 2016 SEC Baseball Tournament.
Alabama will now face regular season champion Mississippi State Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. CT, with senior Geoffrey Bramblett on the mound.
Tide fans can possibly rest a bit easier about their team’s NCAA chances when the bracket is announced Sunday.
Junior righthander Nick Eicholtz (4-3) allowed Kentucky only two earned runs in 6 2/3 innings. He walked two and struck out three.
Eicholtz said, “Being a sinkerball guy, you really have to depend on your defense. I trusted in them to make all those plays behind me like I have all season long. I felt great, and my arm felt fresh. Through five innings, I really thought I was going to be able to finish the game.
“To be able to play for a Regional possibly, I love that kind of pressure.”
Bama catcher Will Haynie, who contributed a home run to the victory, said, “When you see a guy like that giving it to us all game, it gets you fired up.”
Kentucky first baseman Evan White said, “You’ve to give (Eicholtz) credit. He hit his spots well, and was very consistent hitting both the inside and outside corners.”
Said Tide Coach Mitch Gaspard: “The guys know what’s at stake. I’m really proud of them today. It was a pressure-packed game, with a lot on the line. I was really proud of Nick (Eicholtz), and I thought we defended well.
“I was optimistic until this morning (about making a Regional). I believe 15 wins in this league should get you in. I think you deserve to go to a Regional. We’ll see (Sunday) if this was a do-or-die game today.”
(Gaspard had seen some RPI ratings Tuesday morning that had the Tide at no. 62. Only 64 teams get in.)
“I think all nine teams (that have 15 league wins) can go and win a regional,” Gaspard added.
Kentucky Coach Kevin Henderson agreed and said, “We’re very disappointed we don’t get to stay. Where this (season) goes forward, I don’t have any idea. I don’t feel as good as if we would have won. I think if you’re a 15-15 SEC team, you’re an NCAA Tournament team. I think we are, and I think they are.
“I thought (Alabama pitched) pretty well. We had to get six outs in the second inning. When you give somebody six outs in this league in May, they’re going to score.”
Alabama (32-24) took advantage of some shaky Kentucky (32-25) fielding to take an early lead. With one down in the Tide second, Haynie singled up the middle off Cats right hander Zach Logue (3-2), who was making his first SEC start. First baseman Cody Henry then beat out an infield hit on an unsuccessful double play attempt by the Wildcats. Chance Vincent reached on an error when the umpire ruled Kentucky shortstop Riley Mahan did not control a toss for an attempted force out at second. This miscue loaded the bases for Alabama with one out.
Shortstop Daniel Cucjen walked to force in the first run of the contest, and Hunter Webb singled in two more on an 0-2 pitch from Logue. DH Keith Holcombe stepped in with men on the corners but went down swinging. Freshman Cobie Vance grounded into a force to end the threat, but Eicholtz had a three-run cushion to work with.
Eicholtz got some help from his fielders. One example: With two down in the second, Cucjen dove and stabbed a grounder from Mahan, got up, and nipped the runner by a half step at first. Vance made a stab on a one-hopper to start an inning-ending twin-killing in the sixth.
White homered to deep left leading off the home fourth. (Kentucky was the designated home team due to being the 8 seed vs. Bama as the 9). That shot broke up both the no-hitter and the shut out.
The Tide missed a golden opportunity in the seventh. A pair of walks to Vance and All-SEC Freshman team member Chandler Taylor nearly proved costly for Cats reliever Justin Lewis in the seventh. Haynie loaded the bases with a single off the glove of diving second baseman Connor Heady. Third base coach Andy Phillips elected to play it safe and hold Vance. With one down and the bases full, righty flame-thrower Zach Pop came in. Henry went down swinging, and Vincent hit into a fielder’s choice to end the threat.
Mahan’s double drove in a run with two gone in the Kentucky seventh to narrow the Tide lead to one. Exit Eicholtz, enter Matt Foster. The junior righty got Kole Cottam to ground to Henry at first, and a flip to Foster retired the side.
Foster got two quick outs in the eighth, but when White singled, Gaspard chose to bring in his closer, junior lefty Thomas Burrows, to face lefty-hitting Zach Reks. Burrows, pitching on two days’ rest, got Reks to go down swinging.
Then came some two-out, two-run insurance in the form of a bomb by Haynie to deep left scoring Taylor ahead of him in the Bama ninth.
Burrows took the mound for the bottom half with his team up 5-2, and retired the Cats in order. He struck out two of the four men he faced. He now has a dozen saves.
The SEC Network will televise the Tide’s game against Mississippi State Wednesday. Bama lost two of three games to the Bulldogs in Tuscaloosa in late April.