With an Arkansas loss to South Carolina on Saturday there is a four-way tie for first place in the SEC Western Division heading into the final weekend with Auburn, Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi State all 13-4. Auburn will play at Tennessee the final weekend while Arkansas hosts Ole Miss. Alabama will play South Carolina in Tuscaloosa with Mississippi State playing host to LSU. All six teams in the division are within two games going into the final weekend of play.
The loss spoiled a terrific outing by Auburn sophomore pitcher Slade Smith. Going eight and two/thirds innings, he allowed six earned runs on 12 hits and struck out four. The numbers don't tell the whole story on Smith however as Alabama had just three runs through seven innings before breaking things open late.
"Slade Smith did a great job for us," Coach John Pawlowski said. "He pitched great today and gave us a chance to win. We just couldn't come up with one defensive play or a big swing or whatever it took. I thought Alabama did a good job and certainly they deserved to win today."
With the loss Smith falls to 2-1 on the season while Alabama reliever Tucker Hawley got the win, allowing two runs on two hits in two innings. His record improves to 6-2 on the season. Alabama starter Jonathan Smart allowed four runs on eight hits in seven innings and got a no-decision. Locked in a duel all day long Smith said he just couldn't finish things out.
"It's tough," Smith said. "Anytime you go out there and play hard and lose it's tough. It's baseball. You're not going to win them all. It was a great game. I know the fans enjoyed it. I would have loved to get a win, but at the end of the day they asked for us to play hard and that's exactly what we did today. We have to keep our heads up because we've still got a long way to go this season."
At the plate shortstop Casey McElroy was the only Auburn player with two hits as the Tigers finished with 10 on the day against Alabama. On the flip side Taylor Dugas and Andrew Miller each had three hits for the Crimson Tide as part of a 13-hit attack.
Entering the game with a 1.83 ERA, Smart didn't look particularly impressive in the first inning as Justin Fradejas led off with a single to left field and moved to third on a double by Dan Gamache. Just like that Auburn was in business. A McElroy fly ball to center field scored Fradejas easily to put Auburn on the board, but another fly ball from Tony Caldwell left Gamache on second with two outs for Wes Gilmer.
With a pair of doubles in the second game on Saturday, the senior continued his good play with another double off the glove of Miller. The hit scored Gamache and gave Smith an early 2-0 lead.
In control through the first three innings, the Auburn sophomore ran into trouble in the top of the fourth thanks to some shaky defense behind him. Leading off Dugas singled and moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by Brock Bennett. Facing Jared Reaves, Smith got a pop up just behind second base that chased Justin Hargett back into the outfield. Instead of being called off by either Creede Simpson or Fradejas, Hargett was forced to try to make a play and missed the ball for an error.
That allowed Reaves to move into second and Dugas to third with just one out. Designated hitter Brett Whitaker then ripped a ground ball that Hargett took off the chest near the second base bag. His throw to first was on time, but Kevin Patterson couldn't find the bag. That allowed the run to score and put Alabama on the board. Austen Smith then singled to right field to score Reaves and tie the game.
With Auburn still searching for its first hit since the first inning off Smart, Alabama went back to work in the sixth on offense. Bennett led things off with a single and he was still sitting on first with two outs for Smith. Silent for much of the weekend the big first baseman came through for the second time on the day with a double down the left field line. Bennett came around to score to give Alabama the lead 3-2.
In the seventh the Tigers finally got something going against Smart and it came from the unlikely bat of Patterson. Hitless in the series, the first baseman doubled down the left field line to start the inning. Going for some speed Auburn sent freshman Jay Gonzalez to the plate and he put down a perfect bunt for a single to put runners on first and third.
Following a Simpson pop up, Hargett came to the plate needing to make something happen. Getting ahead in the count the senior was called on in a suicide squeeze situation. With Patterson motoring towards the plate Hargett laid a bunt down just inside the first base line and beat it out for a single. With the game tied and runners on first and third Fradejas hit a towering fly ball to center that easily scored Gonzalez.
Now back in front 4-3, Smith allowed a double to Dugas to open the eighth inning. It was the fifth consecutive hit to start an inning for the Crimson Tide. It proved to be big as he later scored on a Whitaker single to again tie the game.
Auburn missed a golden opportunity to take the lead in the bottom of the eighth inning as McElroy and Caldwell put together back-to-back singles to start things off. Trying to get a bunt down, Gilmer went to two strikes before hitting a fly ball to deep center field. Instead of tagging though McElroy went halfway at second, leaving both runners on first and second. It was a big mistake for Auburn as Patterson followed with a fly ball to right that may have been deep enough to score the run. Instead reliever Tucker Hawley retired the side to keep the game tied.
For the sixth-straight inning Alabama led off with a hit as Miller's third hit of the night put Alabama in business against Smith. Following a sacrifice bunt to move the runner to second pinch hitter Josh Rosecrans walked to bring Dugas to the plate. A thorn in Auburn's side since he arrived in Tuscaloosa, the center fielder sliced a double down the left field line to score Miller.
Smith recovered to get Bennett to hit a ground ball to Gilmer at third. He threw out pinch runner James Tullidge at the plate for the second out to bring Reaves up with two on and two outs. Smith just couldn't finish things off as he gave up a single to left to score the second run of the inning and give Alabama a 6-4 lead. They tacked on another run off Jay Wade to make it a three-run lead going to the bottom of the ninth.
Simpson led things off with a solo homer off Hawley, his third of the season. One out later Fradejas drew a walk to bring the tying run to the plate. However it wasn't to be for the Tigers despite a serious threat. Following a Gamache fly out to left field McElroy doubled off the wall in left to score Fradejas and bring Caldwell to the plate with the tying run on second. Hawley closed things out by striking out Caldwell to end the game.
Auburn will travel to Mobile Tuesday night to face South Alabama in a big non-conference game before finishing the regular season out at Tennessee beginning Thursday. Tuesday night's game is scheduled for 6 p.m. at Stanky Field on the USA campus.