Leading 3-2 going to the bottom of the ninth following a Josh Liles error in left on a Tony Caldwell fly ball that allowed Justin Fradejas to score, Auburn sent Slade Smith back to the mound in the bottom of the ninth trying to finish off the complete game. Allowing just a pair of runs in the first eight innings on four hits he was looking good, but that all changed in a matter of a few minutes.
Facing Davis Morgan, Smith got things to a 2-2 count before hitting the first baseman with a pitch. It proved to be the biggest play of the game as Osborne then attempted to bunt the runner over to second. The bunt was back to Smith on the mound and he turned to throw to second, but his attempt sailed into center field. The error allowed Morgan to move to third with nobody out.
With DH Drew Steckrider at the plate Smith got a ground ball to the left side, but Morgan scored on the play and Osborne moved into scoring position with Toles coming to the plate. Auburn Coach John Pawlowski rolled the dice then, bringing in freshman reliever Dillon Ortman to pitch to Toles. It proved to be a mistake as he ripped a single to center field to score Osborne with the game winner.
Losing the series to Tennessee, Auburn falls to 29-27 overall and 14-16 in SEC Tournament play. The Tigers will be the eighth seed for the eight-team event and will play No. 1 seed South Carolina, the defending national champion, on Wednesday at the Hoover Met at 4:30 p.m. The one question that has already been answered is that the Tigers must win at least one game in next week's SEC Tournament in Hoover to finish over .500 and be eligible for the NCAA Tournament.
While those things are important to his team, Pawlowski said they'll look back at Saturday's loss to Tennessee as another one that got away.
"When you look at the opportunities we had, I wish we had some of those opportunities back to score a couple of runs," he said. "It just didn't work out that way. It's unfortunate. I know certainly the team is disappointed and frustrated for sure.
"We had a bunch of guys in scoring position and just couldn't get the ball to the outfield or had a couple of crucial strikeouts in situations where we really needed to put the ball in play," he added. "To win at a high level and in this league you've got to be able to do that. Whether you're playing in the last game of the season or the first you've got to be able to execute, and I didn't think we did that."
It was a tough loss for Smith after a solid performance from the Fort Payne native. He didn't allow a hit until the sixth inning and allowed just three earned runs on four hits in eight and one/third innings. He tied a career high with eight strikeouts as well, but with the loss he falls to 2-2 on the season and he said that's the most important number.
"It's frustrating," Smith said. "Any performance isn't good enough if you don't win. That's what it comes down to. We battled and we had a chance to win. It's just frustrating. I hate it for our team. We have to pick our heads up and get ready for the SEC Tournament."
Auburn finally got some offense going in the third inning with Creede Simpson being the catalyst. Leading things off he drilled one off the wall in left field for a loud single. Following a Justin Hargett bunt that moved him into scoring position, Fradejas hit a fly ball to center field for the second out of the inning. That's then the Tigers came up big.
Playing left field, Cullen Wacker ripped a single into right field to score Simpson and start the two-out rally. Singles by Casey McElroy and Caldwell followed, the second scoring Wacker, to put Auburn up 2-0. Catapano then hit Wes Gilmer in the helmet with a pitch to load the bases, but a Brooks Beisner fly ball brought things to a close with the Tigers up two.
Casey McElroy connects on one of his two hits in Saturday's game. He was the only Tiger with multiple hits.
Smith remained in control of things on the mound to keep the lead steady. Tennessee didn't get its first hit until one out in the fifth when Toles singled back up the middle. He is the younger brother of Auburn women's basketball player Morgan Toles and would prove to be the hero on Saturday.
That's all the Vols would get in the inning as Smith kept the lead at 2-0 going to the sixth. Auburn appeared as if they would more as Wes Gilmer doubled to center field to start the inning and moved to third on a sacrifice bunt by Bobby Andrews. It was Andrews' first at-bat since April 30 against South Carolina.
With a runner on third and less than two outs the Tigers failed to capitalize on the opportunity as Kevin Patterson struck out and Simpson popped up to end the inning.
Tennessee took that momentum into the bottom of the inning and made it pay off as Matt Duffy's one-out double off the wall in right-center gave the Vols their first real scoring threat of the day. Following a groundout by Charley Thurber that moved the runner to third, a Morgan ground ball was just out of the reach of Gilmer at third allowing Duffy to score. Smith recovered to strike out Osborne to end the inning with Auburn's lead down to 2-1.
It looked like Auburn would open things up in the top of the seventh as Hargett doubled to lead off and Fradejas walked. A wild pitch moved up both runners to second and third with still nobody out, but the Tigers failed to do anything as Wacker hit a one-hopper to the first baseman for the first out, Caldwell struck out, and Gilmer hit a fly ball to center to bring the disappointing inning to a close for Auburn.
With one swing of the bat the lead Auburn had held all day was gone in the eighth inning as Liles led off with a solo homer to left field to tie the game at two. It was his first home run of the season in 185 at-bats and made the top of the eighth inning even bigger for the Tigers.
After giving the lead up Auburn finally got a break in the top of the ninth from the Vols to take the lead back 3-2 going to the bottom of the ninth. Leading off the inning Fradejas hit a blooper that just got over the head of Morgan at first base for a single. After moving to second on a ground ball out by Wacker, Fradejas was still sitting at second following a strikeout by McElroy. That brought Caldwell to the plate with a chance to give the Tigers the lead. Hitting a fly ball to left field that Liles dropped trying to make a jumping grab, Caldwell coasted into second base and Fradejas scored easily to make it 3-2 Auburn.
It wouldn't be enough on this day however as the Vols scored twice to pull out the victory.
The other games on Wednesday at the SEC Tournament include No. 2 seed Arkansas vs. No. 7 seed Alabama at 9:30 a.m. and No. 3 seed Florida vs. No. 6 seed Mississippi State will follow 30 minutes after game one. No. 4 seed Vanderbilt will play No. 5 seed Georgia 30 minutes after Auburn's game vs. South Carolina.