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Tuscaloosa Regional boasts interesting matchups

6/6/2006

Tuscaloosa Regional

1. Alabama (41-19) -- 15th appearance, at-large, tied for Southeastern regular season, No. 4 national seed
2. Troy (45-14) -- Third appearance, automatic, won Sun Belt regular season and tournament
3. Southern Mississippi (38-21) -- Seventh appearance, at-large, Conference USA
4. Jacksonville State (35-22) -- Second appearance, automatic, won Ohio Valley tournament

Tuscaloosa Regional schedule
At Sewell-Thomas Stadium
Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Friday, June 2
Game 1 -- Troy 10, Southern Mississippi 8
Game 2 -- Alabama 13, Jacksonville State 1
Saturday, June 3
Game 3 -- Southern Mississippi 6, Jacksonville State 2
Game 4 -- Alabama 4, Troy 3
Sunday, June 4
Game 5 -- Troy 6, Southern Mississippi 5
Game 6 -- Alabama 14, Troy 5
Alabama (44-19) advances to the super regional round.

Tuscaloosa Regional notes

While Kentucky won the SEC East with an attack that evoked LSU's gorilla ball, Alabama won the West and tied UK atop the conference with a style more familiar to fans on the West Coast. The Crimson Tide rolled three big arms out each weekend in juniors Wade LeBlanc (10, 2.72, 116 strikeouts) and Bernard Robert (7-6, 4.74) and freshman Tommy Hunter (10-3, 3.19), and they helped the Tide top the SEC with a 3.42 ERA (12th nationally). The offense is more opportunistic than consistent, with sparkplug Emeel Salem (.362, 33 steals) atop an order that scored the second-fewest runs of any SEC team in the NCAA Tournament. Catcher Kody Valverde provided the thunder with 11 homers, but no other Alabama hitter topped six homers or a .306 average. Coach Jim Wells said after the SEC tournament that he could get nervous if the Tide got pushed to a fourth game in the regional, because he's not sure who gets the ball after his Big Three have pitched.

Troy leads the nation with 555 runs or 9.4 per game. South Carolina transfer Tommy King played shortstop and hit .416 and led the nation with 34 doubles to spark an offense that batted a collective .335. Corner infielder Josh Dew hit 17 homers, and Auburn transfer Mike Felix batted .382 as a corner outfielder. The duo also excelled on the mound in relief, with Felix serving as Troy's best pitcher with a 9-3 record, 3.46 ERA and four saves thanks to a low-90s fastball, while Dew led the team with five saves while going 5-1 with a 2.72 ERA. Despite the gaudy offensive numbers in its first year as a Sun Belt member, Troy didn't do as much at the plate against top competition. The Trojans scored a midweek win against Alabama, but got swept at Southern Mississippi in its most difficult non-conference series of the season. It also lost a single game to Michigan in its only other non-league game against a team that made the 2006 NCAA field.

Troy will see that same Southern Mississippi team on the first day of the tournament. The Golden Eagles held the Trojans to four runs over 29 innings in the sweep, and no one confused the Southern Miss pitching staff with that of Rice during the season. In fact, Southern Miss posted a 4.75 team ERA, but won games thanks to an offense nearly as productive as Troy's. The Golden Eagles averaged more than eight runs per game on the strength of 76 homers (seventh among tournament teams), 18 of them coming off the bat of senior Marc Maddox. Center fielder Toddric Johnson tacked on 10 jacks while batting .366. Most of those homers came in the friendly confines of Pete Taylor Park (340 feet down the lines and 365 to the power alleys), where USM went 27-8. It struggled to an 8-12 road mark.

Jacksonville State doesn't have the complement of bats or arms it needs to win here, but sophomore right-hander Donovan Hand, who ranked third in the OVC with nine wins, a 2.58 ERA and 88 strikeouts, could keep the opener close before giving way to the two-Drink minimum bullpen of brothers Lee (2-3, 4.12) and Tony (4-4, 3.50, four saves) Drinkard, a lefty-righty combo. JSU also led the league with a .308 average and 420 runs behind junior outfielder Nick Clecker's .380 clip and 62 runs.

Will Kimmey covers college baseball for Baseball America.