MURPHY: Hunter Has Been Key to Tide Season

It was a cool and breezy evening in east Mississippi on Thursday.

The chill in the air and humidity lower than a John Smoltz splitter were perfect conditions for the big ol' boy from Indiana. Because, as we know, Tommy Hunter has been known to work up a man-sized sweat when chunking fastballs.

Yes, the baby-faced Hunter, a plus-sized lad with a mischievious grin, was in his element. The conditions were right and his Alabama baseball team was in dire need of a big game on the mound.

Like the Braves' Smoltz, Hunter looms larger when the setting is bigger. Remember Alabama's must-win game last May on the final day of the regular season?

With a share of the SEC regular season championship at stake, the freshman Hunter, admitting he was practically shaking with bottled-up energy, went out and threw a gem in a 5-1 complete-game win in Knoxville.

That was his last complete game before Thursday's critical juncture.

On this night, Hunter bagged his prey with an epic 144-pitch outing. Some guys throw about 100 pitches in their starts. Hunter threw 100 strikes against the Bulldogs.

"I barely sweated," Hunter said. "My hat's not full of sweat (like usual)."

Hunter didn't have his best stuff, giving up three extra-base hits, including a home run to light-hitting Jet Butler, but he had enough to get the Crimson Tide what it had to have -- a 4-3 win. Hunter survived a shaky fifth inning by freezing State's best hitter -- Edward Easley -- on a fastball for called strike three with two runners on and two runs already in.

Then he zoomed through the sixth and seventh, navigated through the top of State's order again in the eighth, and faced a tough decision while his club batted in the top of the ninth.

Already close to 130 pitches in, Hunter needed to tell Alabama coach Jim Wells how he felt.

"I said 'Well, well enough to come out and throw the ninth,'" Hunter said. "He just told me to believe in myself and that I'm pretty damn good. It's very cool when your coach comes up and tells you that."

Hunter made it through the ninth, despite two absolute bolts by Joseph McCaskill and Conner Powers. Tide right fielder Tyler Odle tracked down McCaskill's rip in the right-center gap for out No. 2, and left-fielder Brandon Belcher quickly gunned it to the warning track to track down Powers' smash to end the game.

"I hung that last curveball," Hunter said. "I just hung up. That was an unbelievable swing. He saw it, he sat back and he just drilled it. I'm just glad he hit it right to Belcher."

Alabama's win, behind Hunter's five-hitter and an Alex Avila grand slam, positioned the Crimson Tide right on the doorstep of an SEC tournament berth. Alabama clinched its spot in Hoover Friday night.

Having a hoss like Hunter made all the difference for an Alabama team that has scuffled along through so much of this season.

"I always say he's got the toughest job," Avila said. "Because we can't guarantee him a win every time. He's got to face their No. 1, so our offense is not always going to be dynamite.

"When he comes out, it just lifts everybody. You know he's going to give you a good game. Even when he's in trouble, you feel comfortable. He's got good stuff and he has confidence he's going to get guys out."

Hunter has been the consummate teammate throughout this roller coaster of a year. Wells needed him as a starter early, so Big Tommy did it. Then Hunter needed to be the closer, so he went to the pen and did his job. Then he needed to be the swing guy -- wait in the pen on Friday and Saturday, maybe start on Sunday. Then he was desperately needed back at the front of the rotation.

Mission accomplished.

With Hunter back on the hill in his lead role, a postseason that seemed so far off just a few weeks ago is coming into tighter focus for the Crimson Tide.

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