With the loss Auburn falls to 28-26 overall and 13-15 in SEC play and must now win both remaining games against Tennessee (24-28, 6-22) to guarantee a winning regular season in 2011. The Tigers are one-game behind Alabama after the Crimson Tide defeated South Carolina. With Ole Miss beating Arkansas and LSU defeating Ole Miss it leaves Alabama one game ahead of Auburn, Arkansas, Miss. State and Ole Miss with LSU a game behind the group.
Coach John Pawlowski said his team just didn't make the plays when it had the chance and now they're backs are against the wall.
"I thought our team battled back," Pawlowski said. "We battled back from being down 3-0 in the first inning. Give their pitcher credit. I thought he did a good job and made some big pitches. Our kids battled back. They have battled adversity and had some tough scenarios placed upon them all year. Tomorrow we'll come back and try to win a game.
"Our backs have been against the wall since we opened up SEC play," he added. "We started off scuffling a little bit after the first three series. These guys know what we need to do. There is no added pressure. They competed hard today. We'll come out and go at it again tomorrow."
Hitting just .229 in SEC play and averaging just 7.37 hits and 2.55 runs per game coming into Thursday night's contest, Tennessee pounded Auburn pitching for 13 hits and five runs in the win. Auburn starter Jon Luke Jacobs battled after a first tough inning, allowing three runs on eight hits in five and one/third innings. Reliever Ethan Wallen allowed two runs on three hits in just one and two/thirds on a night when Auburn just couldn't finish things off on the mound.
"It was just rough," Jacobs said of his first inning. "I was trying to get off to a good start because that's always big for our team. I was just kind of battling today. I didn't really have a lot there, but I feel like I settled in after the first inning and tried to get things under control and give us somewhat of a chance. I feel like I did that.
"You take away that first inning and we're right there in it with a chance to win the ballgame. We'll come back and play well tomorrow. We only scored two runs tonight. Offensively you're not going to hold us down that long. I feel good about tomorrow."
Earning the win to improve to 5-7 on the season, Gruver allowed just two runs on five hits in seven and one/third innings while striking out seven Auburn batters.
All season long Pawlowski has preached about walks and that came back to bite the Tigers on Thursday night with the major damage coming in the first inning. Facing leadoff man Khayyan Norfork, Jacobs pushed things to a full count before just missing. Following a ground ball to move the runner to second Jacobs then walked Charley Thurber and Matt Duffy to load the bases with just one out.
Facing designated hitter Drew Steckenrider, who had just eight hits in 39 at-bats this season, Jacobs fell behind before allowing a single to center field. The hit scored two and gave the Vols the early lead. With runners on first and second Tennessee put the runners in motion, but Auburn catcher Tony Caldwell gunned down Duffy at third for the second out. It proved to be big as first baseman Davis Morgan singled home Steckenrider for the 3-0 Tennessee lead.
Only twice in the last 10 games had the Vols reached three runs in an SEC game, but that's exactly where this one stood after one inning of play.
With Gruver cruising on the mound the Tigers only had one base runner in the first three innings and didn't have a hit until the fifth when Wes Gilmer followed a leadoff walk to Caldwell with a single to right field. Following a Kevin Patterson ground ball to the right side that retired Gilmer at second, Creede Simpson's fly ball to right field easily scored Caldwell to put Auburn on the board.
Again Auburn got the offense going in the top of the sixth as a one-out walk to Dan Gamache brought the heart of the order to the plate. Still bothered by a hamstring injury, the designated hitter could only make it to second on a single to right field by McElroy. Another single, this one by Caldwell, loaded the bases with one out for Gilmer. The senior did his job with a fly ball to center to score Gamache and make it a one-run game, but Patterson struck out to end the inning with Tennessee up 3-2.
Gilmer snares a fly ball during Thursday's loss to Tennessee.
Failing to score with runners in scoring position came back to hurt Auburn as a one-out walk to Morgan brought Ethan Bennett to the plate. Just missing a homer early in the game, the freshman catcher drilled a double deep to left field to put a pair in scoring position with just one out.
That was all for Jacobs as Wallen came on and struck out Chris Fritts for a big second out. Facing senior center fielder Josh Liles in a huge situation Wallen got a ground ball to McElroy to end the threat and keep Auburn down by just a run.
In the seventh Brooks Beisner got Auburn's fourth hit of the game with a one-out double to left-center field. With seniors Justin Hargett and Justin Fradejas due up that looked to be a great scoring opportunity for the Tigers, but a fly out and strikeout ended things with Tennessee clinging to a 3-2 lead.
After doing a very good job in the sixth Wallen struggled in the seventh as Norfolk and Osbourne singled to open the inning and moved up a base on a Thurber sacrifice bunt. An intentional walk to Duffy loaded the bases to set up the force play at any base, but Wallen didn't need it as he struck out Steckenrider for the second out. Falling behind Morgan, the reliever worked things back to a full count but had to groove a pitch and Morgan didn't miss it. His single to left field easily scored both Norfolk and Osbourne to make it 5-2 Tennessee.
Gruver lasted until a McElroy single with one out in the eighth chased him in favor of the DH Steckenrider. After getting Caldwell out on a pop up he walked Gilmer to bring Patterson to the plate. With a chance to bring the Tigers closer the senior hit a weak ground ball to second to end the inning.
Auburn again got something going in the ninth as pinch hitter Cullen Wacker doubled to left field off Zack Godley to bring Jay Gonzalez to the plate. With Duffy back at third the freshman put down a great bunt, but Duffy barehanded the ball and made a perfect throw to first to gun down Gonzalez. Facing lefty reliever T.J. Thornton, pinch hitter Zach Alvord walked on four pitches to bring Fradejas to the plate with the tying run.
Tennessee again changed pitchers as right-hander Nick Williams came on and immediately walked Fradejas to load the bases for Gamache. Getting the second out on a strikeout, Williams faced McElroy with the game on the line. Smashing a ball to deep center field the shortstop looked like he tied the game, but Josh Liles ran it down for the final out to seal the win for the Vols.
At the plate McElroy was the only Auburn player with two hits as the Tigers finished the night with just six total hits. On the flipside Norfork had three hits and scored two runs while Morgan added a pair of hits and three RBI.
Auburn will look to wrap up a bid to the SEC Tournament on Friday night at 5 p.m. central time when junior pitcher Derek Varnadore (5-2, 3.60 ERA) faces off against Nick Blount (1-4, 5.52) for Tennessee.