Nelson Pitches Tide Past Auburn

The television introduction for the opening game of the 2010 Southeastern Conference Baseball Tournament in Hoover noted, "The Birmingham area has played host to Alabama-Auburn classics on the gridiron. Today it's the Iron Bowl, baseball style!" And so it was, and though the venue Regions Park and not Legion Field, people still showed up, hoping for another Tide-Tigers classic.



The weather was great, the park alive; and the game? Very competitive, at least until the ninth inning.

Alabama tamed the Tigers, 7-1, giving first-year Coach Mitch Gaspard quite the 45th birthday present. Ace Crimson Tide right-hander Jimmy Nelson turned in a third complete game win. In a row. Bama is now 3-2 against the Tigers this year (and one of Auburn's wins was a non-counting exhibition).

Alabama improved its record to 35-21 with its sixth consecutive win. It was the first time since 2003 Alabama had won its opening game in the SEC Tournament, the most recent season in which Bama won the tournament. Alabama now leads Auburn 5-2 head-to-head in SEC Tournament games.

The Crimson Tide will play the winner of the South Carolina - Ole Miss game at 4:30 p.m. CDT Thursday. Auburn and the loser of the SC-Mississippi game play an elimination game at 9:30 a.m. Thursday. Alabama will pitch Nathan "Peanut" Kilcrease.

GAME STORY: As the seven seed, Alabama served as visitors against second seeded Auburn. The Tigers entered the tourney as the league's most potent offense. AU came in leading the SEC in batting average, slugging percentage, on base percentage, runs scored, hits, RBI, home runs and total bases.

Apparently, Nelson did not get that memo. Nelson limited the Tigers to five hits, one earned run, while walking no one and striking out six. The five hits were a season low for the Tigers (39-18).

"This is the best stretch I've had so far in my career," said Nelson. "Our defense made great plays all over the place. I just tried to pound the (strike) zone, and let my defense work."

Said Gaspard: "He had all three pitches working today. A complete game against an offensive team like Auburn doesn't happy very often.

"As the game got deeper, the energy in our dugout kept growing, and with that energy, confidence. Hey, it's Alabama-Auburn. You want to beat Auburn every time you line up against them.

"Today was the best we've played, particularly against Auburn. We're clicking on all cylinders."

"I thought Nelson was outstanding," said Auburn Coach John Pawlowski. "His stuff was really good. We never really got a chance to get anything going. He threw the ball extremely well."

Nelson (8-2) hit 95 miles per hour a few times according to the radar gun on the scoreboard. However, there were times he got help from his defense, especially Rutledge at short and Jones at first, and the cavernous nature of Regions Park. Some balls Wednesday were long outs. In most college parks, they'd have been dingers.

Auburn left-hander Cory Luckie (6-4) came in with an ERA of 6.17. He retired the first five Tide hitters before Jake Smith singled sharply through the left side with two gone in the second. Jon Kelton singled to center, and when Auburn didn't cut the throw off, the Tide had men on second and third. Luckie struck out Andrew Miller to end the threat.

Alabama would have other innings when the Tide was able to get runners in with two outs. In fact, the Alabama offense scored all seven of its runs with two outs, led by junior designated hitter David Kindred and freshman right fielder Andrew Miller who both notched a pair of RBI. The Crimson scored five of its seven runs over the last three innings, including three in the top of the ninth.

Dan Gamache doubled off the wall in center to open the Tigers' third. After a sacrifice bunt moved Gamache to third, Nelson and the Tide were victimized by another sac bunt. The suicide squeeze by Justin Fradejas, plated the first run of the game. Red-hot Trent Mummey doubled to the right field corner, and took third when Miller bobbled the ball. Nelson struck out Brian Fletcher to escape further damage, but the Tigers led 1-0 after three.

No one suspected it at the time, but the hard-hitting Tigers were toast for the rest of the game against Nelson. The loss ended a six-game winning streak for AU.

The next frame saw Bama load the bases on an error sandwiched between two walks. The Tide got a big boost when second sacker Justin Hargett booted a potential inning-ending double play ball. Miller again came up with men in scoring position, and this time he came through with a two-run single. The Tide held a 2-1 lead heading to the bottom of the fourth. Neither run was earned. Both counted.

Taylor Dugas bunted his way on to lead off the fifth to reach base in his 45th straight game, but a double play ball off Josh Rutledge's bat erased him. In five games this year against Auburn, Dugas has reached base on 20 of his 25 plate appearances. That's .800. That's sick.

"I think (in the future) we'll just put him on base," said Pawlowski. "We can't get him out. He's their table-setter." With two outs in the seventh, Brock Bennett doubled and Dugas tripled him home for a 3-1 Tide lead. That marked the end of Luckie's day.

Clay Jones doubled off the center field wall with one down in the eighth. With two gone, Smith doubled in Bama's fourth run of the day.

Jones got an RBI the easy way an inning later, when he drew a bases loaded walk from Tigers reliever Zach Blatt. DH David Kindred broke it open with a two-run single, and Bama headed to the bottom of the ninth with a 7-1 advantage. Nelson put the Tigers down in order, including a strikeout for the game-ender.

Nelson threw only 12 total pitches in the final two innings.

TIME OF GAME/ATTENDANCE/TRAFFIC: The first pitch went off at 9:39 a.m. The game lasted only 2:12. The 20-second pitch clock instituted by the SEC was a factor, though Luckie and Nelson both said it did not affect their games.

Official paid attendance was given after this story was sent, but all concerned said it was over 12,000. The crowd appeared to be at least 55/45, maybe even 60/40 Auburn. With their offense, Tiger fans probably expected to see a beat down by their squad. Nelson had other ideas.

If you like sitting in traffic, Hoover's Stadium Trace Parkway was the place to be Wednesday morning. I used my usual spot down at the soccer lot, one-way walk of about a half mile that was much needed. Several fans and reporters said it took them over an hour to traverse the 1.5 miles between Highway 150 and the ballpark. With Memphis and Duluth, Georgia, both bidding on future tourneys, a few said that could be a factor. Time will tell.

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