With the victory Auburn improves to 29-26 on the season and 14-15 in SEC play and has the chance to play not only for a possible SEC Western Division title on Saturday but needs another win to ensure finishing over .500 this regular season. An Alabama loss to South Carolina and a Mississippi State win means Auburn must win and have the Bulldogs lose in order to win the West.
Auburn Coach John Pawlowski said getting the win on Friday was huge but his team is focused on finishing it off.
"They jumped us again early today, but I thought Derek Varnadore was a workhorse for us," Pawlowski said. "He went out there and got us deep into the game after a rough start. What a great job he did. I'm really proud of him and our team.
"We talked about the significance and importance of every game," he added. "Today was no different. Obviously we were disappointed with last night's outcome, but our team mentally has been tested all year. It hasn't come easy just like today.
"One of our goals obviously was to get in the SEC Tournament. Having the opportunity to go back-to-back is special in itself. Now having the opportunity to play for a championship tomorrow is very, very important to us."
Senior second baseman Justin Hargett led the Tigers with four hits while Caldwell, Cullen Wacker, and Casey McElroy all had three hits. However the story was the pitching of Varnadore. After giving up three runs in the first he pitched deep in the game to help in getting the win and also save the bullpen for Saturday.
"I don't know what happened at the start," Varnadore said. "They were just hitting some balls that were getting through. The strike zone kind of shrunk on me a little bit, but we worked around it. I was glad to get out of it with just three.
"I was pleased with how things ended," he added. "I wanted to get to the seventh but I was glad to bounce back from that first inning. It could have been a whole lot better. I just came out and tried to do the same things I've done all year. I figured if I could do that it's the best thing I could do."
Before Thursday night's three-run first inning, it had been since April 12 against Appalachian State that Tennessee had scored more than one run in the first. On Friday the Vols repeated that performance to put Auburn in the early hole. After striking out leadoff man Khayyan Norfolk on three pitches Varnadore got ahead of Zach Osborne 0-2 before the shortstop hit a liner up the middle that the pitcher deflected but couldn't field for an infield single.
That play opened the floodgates for the Vols as Varnadore walked Charley Thurber to bring third baseman Matt Duffy to the plate. Once again Varnadore got ahead 0-2 but Duffy fought back to a full count before pulling a pitch down the left field line for a double. Both runners scored easily on the hit for the 2-0 Tennessee lead. Following Varnadore's second strikeout of the inning Davis Morgan's single to left field scored Duffy for the three-run Vols' advantage.
After going quietly the first two innings Auburn finally got the offense going in the top of the third as Tennessee starter Nick Blount hit Fradejas to lead things off. Playing left field, Wacker singled to right field to put runners on first and third with nobody out. Delivering a fly ball to left field, McElroy pushed across Fradejas and moved Wacker to second. It proved to be big as Caldwell singled up the middle to score Wacker and bring Auburn to within a run.
Caldwell at first base after his RBI single.
The Tigers continued with the offensive explosion in the fourth as first baseman Kevin Patterson went the other way with a double to left-center. Creede Simpson then singled to left field to put runners on the corners with nobody out for Hargett. Getting a pitch to pull the senior lined it into right field for a single to score Patterson and tied the game at three.
With runners on first and second and nobody out Fradejas hit a chopper towards the third base bag that Duffy fielded and stepped on third for out number one and threw across trying to double up the runner. However his throw was wide at first allowing Hargett and Fradejas to wind up on second and third. A pair of hits added two more runs to put Auburn up 5-3 going to the fifth.
Again it was the offense going to work as Patterson walked to open the inning and moved to second on a wild pitch. After moving up to third on a fly ball from Simpson, Patterson scored on a bunt single from Hargett. Following a single by Fradejas to left, Wacker again singled to right. Hargett scored on the play but Fradejas was thrown out at third to end the rally.
Now ahead 7-3 Auburn added a run in the sixth on a Gilmer double to make it a five-run advantage for Varnadore heading into the bottom of the inning. The Vols managed to get one back on a solo homer from freshman catcher Ethan Bennett to make the score 8-4 Auburn going into the final three innings of play.
Continuing his big night Hargett singled through the right side with one out in the top of the seventh. With Fradejas at the plate the senior stole second and moved to third on a throwing error by Bennett. With the infield in all Fradejas needed was a fly ball and he did just that with a poke to right field. Hargett trotted home to make it 9-4 Auburn.
Justin Hargett connects with one of his four hits.
Coming back strong after a rough first inning, Varnadore lasted all the way through two outs in the seventh inning but singles from Duffy and Drew Steckenrider with two outs was the end of the line for him. Blatt came on to face Morgan with runners on first and third in the bottom of the seventh and struck him out looking to end the inning.
In the ninth the Tigers put the finishing touches on the win in grand fashion. After a Hargett bunt single, his third hit of the night, Fradejas walked to put a pair on base. Following a Wacker ground ball to move the runners into scoring position, the Vols intentionally walked McElroy with a lefty on the mound to face Caldwell. That proved to be a bad mistake as the senior catcher blasted his second grand slam of the season over the left field wall to put Auburn up 13-4. Blatt finished things off in the ninth to complete the win for the Tigers.
Auburn will face Tennessee in another big game at 1 p.m. central time on Saturday as Slade Smith (2-1, 6.39 ERA) will square off against Tennessee starter Rob Catapano on the mound.
Auburn senior Justin Hargett talks about the win.