The win moves Auburn to 34-14 overall, 15-9 in SEC play and just a game and a half behind LSU with a trip to Baton Rouge next weekend. Florida drops to 32-15-1 with an 11-12-1 record in league play. Coach Steve Renfroe said following the Sunday contest that if there ever was a must-win game for his team, this was it.
"It was huge," Renfroe said. "It's one of those things, we don't tell the players that, but personally I felt we had to win this game. You kind of right the ship. You look back and there are two series left and we've won six, that's pretty good, but you leave on the road on a winning note and you distance yourself because six teams lost this weekend. That's what's big this time of year."
Struggling to find consistent starting pitching all season long, the Tigers got that and more out of Paxton on Sunday. With basically just a fastball to depend on during the game, he held the powerful Gators to just two hits and no runs in seven innings pitched. Relievers Steven Register and Levale Speigner finished the game for the Tigers with Speigner earning his first save of the season. Still this win was all about the performance by Paxton.
"He did it with one pitch basically today by locating," Renfroe said of Paxton. "Bobby (catcher Bobby Huddleston) said, ‘His fastball is exploding coach' and I said, ‘Okay, go get 'em,' and that happened."
A key performer since his freshman season at Auburn, Paxton has been hit-or-miss for much of the last two years on the mound for the Tigers. This season he has been consistent, but hasn't given a star quality performance until Sunday. He said following the game there was a little extra in his tank.
"This doesn't make or break you, but it was a very, very big game," Paxton said. "We have struggled late the past two weeks. This was a big game for us to get today."
Auburn followed a similar plan to Saturday's action as the Tigers got on the board early against Florida ace Justin Hoyman. After both teams were retired in order in the first inning, the Tigers got to the sophomore in the second. Huddleston led off the bottom of the inning with a single to right-center and moved to second when center fielder Ben Harrison's throw was errant coming back into the infield. The hottest hitter for the Tigers, Karl Amonite walked to bring Josh Bell to the plate.
Put in a position similar to last weekend, Renfroe elected to let Bell swing away instead of risking a move of Huddleston to third on a bunt. The gamble didn't pay off as Bell hit into a double play that moved Huddleston to third with Clete Thomas coming to the plate. Unlike Huddleston, Thomas can run and it paid off when he beat out a ground ball to the shortstop that allowed Huddleston to score and make it 1-0 Tigers.
Auburn wasn't done yet as Scott Schade executed a hit and run to perfection, drilling a double into the right field corner that scored Thomas all the way from first. Leading 2-0, Paxton put it on cruise control against the top offensive club in the league.
It was a good thing, too, because the Tigers quickly became stymied by Hoyman on the mound. Following Schade's double, Auburn didn't get another hit until Amonite led off the seventh inning with a single to right field. In between that Paxton was brilliant, but Auburn's seventh inning at the plate put an end to his day.
With Amonite on first, Bell singled to right field to bring Thomas to the plate trying to move both runners over with a bunt. Showing his speed once again, Thomas beat out a perfect bunt to load the bases with nobody out. Although Auburn just got one run out of the inning with a Schade sacrifice fly, the inning lasted a long time and allowed Paxton to tighten up just enough to reduce his effectiveness.
That became evident with the first batter of the eighth inning as Paxton hit him in the foot to quickly bring Renfroe out of the dugout. Sensing his junior was tired after throwing 95 pitches and taking final exams on Saturday, Renfroe went to Register to seal the deal. He got the job done in the eighth and the Tigers would get an important insurance run in the bottom of the inning after a Moran single and stolen base put him on third with a throwing error by catcher Justin Rose. Scoring just moments later when Tug Hulett hit a ground ball to the right side that was booted by C.J. Smith, it appeared Moran's run wasn't going to be meaningful, but that would be wrong.
Getting Smith on a strikeout to open the inning, Register ran out of steam in a hurry as Harrison and Mario Garza hit back-to-back doubles to bring Rose to the plate. A powerful hitter, Rose caught a Register pitch and dumped it over the monster in left field for a three-run shot that made it 4-3 Tigers. Renfroe didn't need to see any more as he called for Speigner out of the bullpen.
That didn't start as planned when he hit pinch-hitter Jake Riordan to bring the go-ahead run to the plate with still one out. Shortstop Matt Graziano made the second out of the inning on a fly to Thomas in foul territory in right field bringing Jeff Corsaletti to the plate. With a 2-2 count, Graziano stole second base to move into scoring position for a full count pitch from Speigner. Hitting line drives all day at the plate, Corsaletti did it one more time, but fortunately for the Tigers it was right at Schade for the third out and final out of the game.
"I felt comfortable, but my splitter wasn't great today," Speigner said. "That's what he actually hit that last pitch and got a good piece of it. I felt confident in my fastball. It was good to get that under my belt. It was huge for us. We've been in such a slide lately and we just have to battle and battle and battle. We could never give up, we had to keep on battling. That's something we just have to keep on doing. Getting this one was absolutely huge."