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May 19, 2014

Baseball: Nick Eicholtz gets the start in big SEC Tourney spot

Nick Eicholtz's ideal role is clear, and the numbers back him up.

Though he has pitched everywhere for Alabama this season, he undoubtedly prefers starting games on the mound.

He likes the structure. He likes the 45 minutes to warm up, the chance to stretch, the opportunity to settle into a game.

"I've been doing it my whole life," he said. "It's just a more comfortable role for me."

He'll get his wish today, but it's in one heck of a spot: The true freshman will take the ball in an opening-round game of the Southeastern Conference Tournament against Kentucky, one of the best offenses in the nation. He will oppose UK starter A.J. Reed, a surefire first-round draft pick who many, including Eicholtz's head coach Mitch Gaspard, believe is the best player in college baseball.

VIDEO: Interviews of Mitch Gaspard and players before the SEC Tournament

Oh, and the first round is single-elimination, so the loser of today's game is done for the week.

"It's a tremendous opportunity for his growth and his development," Gaspard said of starting Eicholtz. Alabama, the No. 8 seed and Kentucky, the No. 9 seed, play at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium at 4:30 p.m. today. "One, he's going to get to pitch in front of more than likely a really good crowd. He's going to get to face up against one of the top guys in the country both from a pitching standpoint and an offensive standpoint."

The statistics reinforce Eicholtz's preference to start. In eight starts - all coming in midweek games - Eicholtz is 3-0 with a 2.06 ERA. In seven relief appearances during SEC play, it has been wildly different with his 8.31 ERA. He walked seven and struck out two in 8 2/3 SEC relief innings.

"I think he's always trained that way and I think with a lot of young guys that come in, some guys are just very comfortable taking that ball from the first inning on and having that preparation leading up to that start and then you throw them into the bullpen and sometimes it just doesn't work quite as well," said Gaspard. "You can look at his numbers as a starter versus as a reliever and that kind of tells you where his comfort level is. As I said, he has done a good job as a starter and that is where we see him moving down the road."

A tall right-hander with a smooth delivery and live fastball, Eicholtz, a 29th-round draft pick by the Milwaukee Brewers in 2013, is considered one of the best future pro prospects on Alabama's roster. In any role, today is a chance for him to prove he can be consistently effective against SEC hitters. The only test cases for Eicholtz so far are the relief work and one start against Auburn in a non-conference meeting at the Capital City Classic in Montgomery in March. There he allowed three hits, three walks and two runs over five innings in Alabama's 4-3 win.

Today offers that barometer. Kentucky leads the SEC and ranks among the top eight teams nationally in runs scored, home runs, slugging percentage and on base percentage. The Wildcats' effort centers around its ace Reed (10-2, 2.11 ERA) a proven pitcher who also picks up a bat and leads the nation in home runs (23) and slugging percentage (.788).

How tough is it to face Reed and the UK lineup? The 10 SEC starters who have opposed Reed in 2014 have a combined 7.05 ERA in those starts. Coincidentally, the best opposing start was provided by Alabama's Spencer Turnbull in UA's 3-0 win on March 11.

Eicholtz has his wish, a start in front of a big crowd in a a big spot where the loser heads home and the winner moves on to face the top-seeded Florida Gators on Wednesday.

Eicholtz says he's ready for that challenge.

"I trust in myself and I know that the team trusts in me too," Eicholtz said. "That allows me to be comfortable with myself. Just trust my stuff and I think I will be fine."

TideSports.com's Nolan Imsande contributed to this report.

- Reach D.C. Reeves at 205-722-0196 or [email protected]

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