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THURSDAY, MAY 17, 2007
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Tideís Hunter could be teamís X-factor

By Josh Cooper
jcooper@decaturdaily.com ∑ 340-2460

It has become a weekly occurrence for Alabama right-handed pitcher Tommy Hunter.

After he has finished fielding questions during Alabama's media day, he'll look at his teammates stretching, then look at reporters and asks, "You guys have anything else?"

When the crowd surrounding Hunter shakes their collective heads, he looks back at the rest of the Alabama baseball team and asks, "you sure?"

Such is the goofy life of Alabama's hard-throwing sophomore ace.

He doesn't like to stretch, but he has enough physical skill to ratchet a fastball up to 94 mph when he needs.

He usually wears T-shirts with silly slogans, and he's a two-time Junior Olympic judo champion.

He likes to cook pastries, so much that his roommate, the Tide's designated hitter Alex Avila calls Hunter "Betty Crocker." But that doesn't prevent the 6-foot-4, 250-pound hurler from intimidating opposing hitters with inside fastballs.

"He is outgoing, personable, likes to win and that only helps," said Alabama coach Jim Wells.

"He certainly doesn't do much sulking and is able to bounce back quick."

Hunter will take the mound Thursday at Mississippi State (32-16, 14-11 SEC) for the first game of the Tide's (29-23, 13-14 SEC) season ending three-game set with the Bulldogs. The Tide sits in the seventh spot in the conference standings. The top eight make it to Hoover for the SEC tournament.

"We need to win to get to the tournament," Wells said. "There are 18,000 possibilities. The only thing we can do is concentrate on winning."

Early in the season, it was difficult to imagine Alabama in such a position.

Throughout the season, Hunter had a difficult time finding consistency on the mound. Because of pitching injuries, the Indianapolis native was thrust into a myriad of roles.

He was a starter, then a reliever, then a closer, then a reliever, and now he is a starter again.

Hunter regained his spot in the rotation when Saturday starter Bernard Robert was kicked off the team three weeks ago, and now Alabama has found its groove.

In his past three starts, Hunter is 2-1. In that span, the Tide has taken two games from then No. 14-ranked South Carolina and formerly No. 8-ranked Arkansas.

On the season, Hunter is 6-4 with a 3.65 earned run average with 84 strikeouts in 91 1/3 innings.

"When he is starting on Fridays, he's going to have a good game, and we're going to have that chance to win," Avila said. "With him out there, the chances of us winning are good and that sets the tone for the rest of the weekend."

Hunter is somewhat of a rarity among college pitchers. Despite being a sophomore, he turns 21 before the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, meaning he is draft eligible.

Most college players have to wait until they are juniors to enter.

Hunter's sturdy frame and his live fastball make him an attractive pick in the early rounds, according to some draft sites.

And he hears about it all the time.

When he was at a Tuscaloosa restaurant recently, his sandwich maker asked him about his draft status.

"You can't let that stuff affect you out (on the baseball field)," Hunter said. "You come out playing a game and have fun doing it."

With Hunter, the emphasis is always on fun.

Except for stretching.

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