HOOVER, AL – Alabama head baseball coach Mitch Gaspard celebrated his 45th birthday on Wednesday at Regions Park, but it was junior right-hander Jimmy Nelson who took the cake.
The Niceville, Fla., native logged his third consecutive complete game, leading Alabama to a 7-1 win over No. 16 Auburn in the first round of the 2010 Southeastern Conference Tournament.
Nelson held the SEC's top offensive team to one run on five hits to become the first UA pitcher since Wade LeBlanc (4 CG in 2004) to throw three straight complete games. He added six strikeouts and no walks and finished with 97 total pitches. He retired the last six AU hitters on 12 total pitches in the eighth and ninth innings, including a three-up, three-down ninth inning against the middle of the Tigers' batting order – Brian Fletcher, Hunter Morris and Kevin Patterson.
"For starters, Nelson was outstanding and had all three pitches working today," Gaspard said. "He set the tempo for the game quickly. Throwing 97 pitches against an offensive team like Auburn just does not happen that often. My credit goes to Jimmy Nelson."
Auburn, who led the SEC in eight offensive categories, including batting average, runs scored, home run and RBI, was held to its second-lowest run total of the season and fewest hit total of the season. The Tigers were shutout by South Carolina on March 27. Their previous low for hits (7) came against Arizona State on March 14 and Vanderbilt on April 18.
Alabama (35-21) won its sixth straight game overall and ended its five-game losing streak in SEC Tournament openers that dated back to the 2003 season.
The Crimson Tide scored all seven runs with two outs and broke open a one-run game with five runs over the final three innings. Alabama has scored 33 of its last 45 runs in the seventh inning or later.
Alabama carried a 2-1 lead into the seventh inning before scoring in each of the last three innings for its third straight postseason win over its arch-rival.
"Our team has played with so much energy these past few games and that happens with quality starts." Gaspard added. "Today as the game got deeper our energy in our dugout kept growing. Energy, confidence and timely hits wrapped up our game."
A pair of two-out extra base hits gave Alabama a 3-1 lead in the seventh inning. Junior catcher Brock Bennett started the rally with a double to left and scored on sophomore center fielder Taylor Dugas' triple off the right-center field wall to put the Tide up by two runs.
Alabama added another run in the eighth when senior first baseman Clay Jones stroked a double to right-center and scored on senior third baseman Jake Smith's two-out double over Fletcher's head in left field to make it 4-1.
The Crimson broke the game open with three runs in the ninth inning off two Auburn relievers. Bennett ripped a one-out single to center off lefty Sean Ray and Dugas followed with a walk to put runners at first and second.
Right-hander Zach Blatt replaced Ray on the mound and retired junior shortstop Josh Rutledge on a first-pitch, pop up to center field. Junior second baseman Ross Wilson was hit by a pitch to load the bases and Blatt issued a bases-loaded walk to Jones that scored Bennett and gave UA a 5-1 lead.
Junior David Kindred lined a 2-2 pitch into left field to score Dugas and Wilson as the Tide extended its lead to 7-1.
Auburn (39-18) scored its lone run of the game in the bottom of the second inning to take a 1-0 lead. Dan Gamache led off the inning with double off the center field wall and moved around to score on back-to-back sacrifice bunts by Justin Hargett and Justin Fradejas to take a short-lived one-run lead.
Alabama answered with a pair of unearned runs in the fourth inning to take a 2-1 lead off AU starter Corey Luckie. Jones drew a leadoff walk and moved to second when Kindred reached on an error by Hargett at second base. Sophomore left field Jon Kelton later drew a two-out walk and freshman Andrew Miller followed with a clutch two-run single to right field that scored Jones and Kindred to give the Tide a 2-1 lead.
Luckie (6-4) allowed three runs on six hits in 6 2/3 innings in his second loss of the season to Alabama. He struck out six and walked two.
Alabama will play the winner of the South Carolina-Mississippi game on Thursday, May 26, at 4:30 pm. (CDT). Junior right-hander Nathan Kilcrease (30 G, 5-2, 2.39 ERA) is expected to start on the mound for the Crimson Tide.
*Alabama (34-21, 15-15 SEC) won its sixth straight game on Wednesday and is 11-5 in its last 16 games against SEC opponents since April 23. Including two non-conference games with Georgia (W, 13-2) and Auburn (L, 6-8), Alabama is 18-16 against SEC teams this season.
*Alabama snapped a five-game losing streak in SEC Tournament first round games with its win over Auburn on Wednesday. The Crimson Tide's last first round win came against South Carolina during the 2003 SEC Tournament, which is the last time UA won the tournament championship.
*Alabama scored all seven runs in the win over Auburn with two outs, including three runs in the ninth inning to blow open a close game.
*The Crimson Tide scored five of its seven runs in the final three innings and has scored 33 of its last 45 runs in the seventh inning or later.
*Alabama is 3-2 against Auburn this season and has won three straight SEC Tournament games against the Tigers.
*Alabama had five players make their SEC Tournament debut, including junior DH David Kindred, junior left fielder Jon Kelton, freshman fielder Andrew Miller, junior catcher Brock Bennett and freshman outfielder Matt Taylor. Kelton had a two-out single in his first postseason at-bat in the second inning. Miller had a two-run single in the fourth inning that gave the Tide a 2-1 lead it would never relinquish. Bennett went 2-for-4 and scored a pair of two out runs. He also threw out Casey McElroy, who attempted to steal second base in the seventh inning. Taylor was a defensive replacement in left field in the ninth inning.
*Junior right-hander Jimmy Nelson tossed his third straight complete game as he held the SEC's top offensive team to one run on five hits in nine innings. He added six strikeouts and did not walk a batter. In complete game wins over No. 14 Mississippi, Tennessee and No. 16 Auburn, Nelson has allowed five runs (1.67 ERA) in 27 innings. He is the first UA pitcher to log three straight complete games since Wade LeBlanc tossed four in a row in 2004. Austin Hyatt (vs. Georgia, 2008) was the last UA pitcher to toss a complete game at the SEC Tournament.
*Sophomore center fielder Taylor Dugas went 2-for-4 and reached base three times in the win over Auburn. Dugas extended his on-base streak to 45 consecutive games with a bunt single in the fifth inning. He has reached base safely in 55 of 56 games this year.
*In five games against Auburn this season, Dugas has reached base 20 times in 25 plate appearances. He is hitting .706 (12-for-17) with six runs scored and four RBI.
*Junior shortstop Josh Rutledge, who had his 13-game hitting streak and six-game SEC hitting snapped on Wednesday, made several spectacular defensive plays, including a leaping catch of a Trent Mummey line drive in the sixth inning.
*Senior first baseman Clay Jones has scored nine runs and tallied six hits and six RBI in his last five games. He was 1-for-3 with two runs scored, one double and one RBI against Auburn.
*Senior third baseman Jake Smith had six hits and seven RBI in his last four games. Smith was 2-for-5 with an RBI double in the win over Auburn.
*Miller is 9-for-17 with nine runs scored and four RBI in his last eight games against SEC teams. He a two-run single with two outs in the fourth inning that gave the Tide a 2-1 lead it would never relinquish.
Alabama Head Coach Mitch Gaspard:
"For starters, Nelson was outstanding and had all three pitches working today. He set the tempo for the game quickly. Throwing 97 pitches against an offensive team like Auburn just does not happen that often. My credit goes to Jimmy Nelson. Our team has played with so much energy these past few games and that happens with quality starts. Today as the game got deeper our energy in our dugout kept growing. Energy, confidence and timely hits wrapped up our game. I think our defense did great despite a few errors."
Alabama RHP Jimmy Nelson:
"I think this is the best stretch I have had so far in my career. That is credited to our defense. They made great plays all over the place. I just tried to pitch and they made me look good behind me."
Alabama CF Taylor Dugas:
"It all starts with pitching and Jimmy gave it all he had out there. We couldn't have just two runs up on the board because Auburn is a good team. We really needed those runs."