Scott Michaux

Sports columnist for The Augusta Chronicle. | ScottMichaux.com

Father's message is sinking in for pitcher

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The message hits Tucker Hawley's cell phone every game day with the consistency of a fastball right across the middle of the plate.

Alabama freshman Tucker Hawley, a former South Aiken pitcher, is set to make his first Southeastern Conference start today.   RAINIER EHRHARDT/FILE
RAINIER EHRHARDT/FILE
Alabama freshman Tucker Hawley, a former South Aiken pitcher, is set to make his first Southeastern Conference start today.

"I always know what it's going to say before I even open it," the Alabama freshman pitcher said of the daily long-distance advice from his father.

If you get a chance to get in, make every pitch that's called and keep the ball down in the zone.

It's sound advice coming from a man who was drafted in the first round by the Cincinnati Reds in 1982. Billy Hawley has been the motivating force behind his oldest son's baseball dreams, and he believes Tucker is ready for the next stage in the footstep-following process.

Today -- weather permitting -- Tucker will make his first Southeastern Conference start, against Mississippi State. His parents and younger brother, Tanner, will make the six-hour drive from Aiken to Birmingham, Ala., for the occasion.

"I think he'll do well," Billy Hawley said. "He's always been pretty level-headed, so I don't think he'll treat it differently than any other start. He's been in big situations like that before."

Tucker is making a big impression as a freshman, earning a spot on the travel squad. The coaching staff selected him as the player of the week after he pitched five scoreless innings in two relief outings on the road. He earned his first collegiate win against No. 23 Southeast Louisiana, notching four strikeouts in three innings. He distinguished himself again in front of 13,000 fans at Louisiana State University.

"By far the biggest crowd I've ever pitched in front of," Tucker said. "It was pretty intense. A little overwhelming when I was warming up in the bullpen, but by the time I came out and onto the game mound I was locked in on the hitter and had to make the pitches that were called."

His efforts earned himself his first weekend start against Mississippi State.

"Tucker has shown much improvement for us in his last few outings, and he is getting more and more playing time as a result of his hard work," Alabama head coach Mitch Gaspard said.

Tucker -- with a 4.58 ERA in seven appearances -- had no decisions in his two previous starts against Minnesota and Jacksonville State.

"I'm eager for the opportunity and can't wait for Sunday to roll around," Tucker said. "They want me to be a starter here, so I'm doing whatever they ask me to do right now and taking advantage of every chance I get."

Getting this kind of chance as a freshman is what led Tucker to choose Alabama in the first place. He arrived on a campus energized by the football team surging to a national championship.

"It's pretty fun down here, especially when the football team did as well as they were doing," he said.

The baseball team was having its own fun with a 16-1 start, but what Tucker calls a "rough spot" has left the Tide 22-15 and 5-10 in the SEC. That's created the opportunity Tucker needed to get experience.

Unlike his father, Tucker did not emerge from high school at South Aiken as a polished pro prospect. Billy Hawley was selected 23rd overall in the 1982 draft out of Columbia's Brookland-Cayce High School. He was 18 and already throwing 95 mph with a breaking ball that hit 85, inviting promise until his career was cut short by a torn rotator cuff at the Double-A level.

Tucker's fastball registers in the high 80s with bursts in the low 90s, and he's developing the breaking ball he didn't use much at the high school level.

"Sizewise, he's a lot bigger than I was, but his velocity has not come around as fast," said his father, who was an inch shorter and 45 pounds lighter than his son at the same age. "His coach and I talked, and he thinks Tucker grew so fast that right now his body and rhythm haven't caught up with his size. He's a lot bigger, and honestly it's harder for bigger guys to duplicate their delivery and learn to use their bodies to get the velocity that they need."

If things go well today, the Hawleys might not have to go as far next weekend to see Tucker pitch.

"Hopefully he can do well enough to pitch the following week," his father said. "We play (South) Carolina, so it would be nice to see him pitch against them."

Tucker feels ready to be a regular conference contributor.

"I don't expect to be too nervous," he said. "I think I got all my SEC jitters out against Auburn coming in out of the pen and against LSU."

He intends to heed the advice of his father's text. He knows what happens if he doesn't.

"You've definitely got to keep the ball down and hit every spot," he said. "If you make a bad pitch or miss a spot, you can usually tell because it gets hit pretty well."


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