Needing a win to finish ahead of both Ole Miss and Mississippi State as well as strengthen a bid to be a host for an NCAA Tournament regional at Plainsman Park, Auburn sent senior Levale Speigner to the mound and he was terrific. Allowing just four hits and two runs in seven innings, Speigner got the win to improve his record to a perfect 9-0 this season. Closer Steven Register came on to finish the game, pitching two perfect innings to seal the victory in a hard-fought game.
"The kids played great," Auburn Coach Steve Renfroe said. "This is the biggest win we've had as far as circumstances involved. It was a nice day. I think two years in a row at .500, even though last year I thought we took a step forward, we've finished eighth, fifth and now third. We went to the last weekend mathematically with a chance. We haven't had that chance since 1995. We have a chance for a host site and we haven't done that since 1999. I think the kids have taken this program another notch up."
Levale Speigner's 9-0 record is the most wins by an undefeated Auburn pitcher since Terry Leach went 9-0 in 1974.
A key component to Auburn's success this season, Speigner started the season in the bullpen, but was called upon last weekend to give the Tigers a boost in the starting rotation. Pitching the best baseball of his career this season, the bulldog-tough Speigner didn't have his best stuff on Sunday, but that's sometimes where he's at his best. Working the ball in and out, up and down, he kept Ole Miss off balance and eventually the Tigers got him enough runs to earn the win.
"I started leaving the ball up over the middle," Speigner said following the game in which he only struggled in the fourth inning. "My offspeed stuff wasn't real good for me in that inning. After that inning we went predominately fastball and they put the ball in play and we played defense awesome behind me.
"We've had an incredible team this year," he added. "When we went through our slide it was tough to see through, it's always tough to see through when you're not playing real well. I believed in our team. We weren't playing very good defense and we weren't pitching very well at times and we weren't swinging the bat very well at times. Now maybe we can put all that together and get a little momentum going heading into the tournament and regionals."
Although the Tigers won the game handily, things weren't easy as Ole Miss starter Mark Holliman kept Auburn from breaking the game open until late in the contest. For much of the game, it was mistakes by the Rebels that gave Auburn opportunities, which it cashed in just about every occasion.
It started early as the Tigers scored a run in the first inning without a base hit. With one out Javon Moran hit a ground ball that Rebel third baseman Brian Pettway couldn't handle, allowing the speedster to reach first. Moments later Moran stole second base and moved to third on a groundout by Tug Hulett. That proved to be a big play when Bobby Huddleston walked to bring Karl Amonite to the plate. Being careful to Amonite, Holliman threw one to the screen that scored Moran easily from third with the first run of the game.
Ole Miss came back to take the lead in the fourth after both pitchers dominated the action early. Leadoff hitter Jonathan Swearingen singled through the left side for the game's first hit and hot hitter Seth Smith doubled into the left-center field gap to put runners on first and second with nobody out. A Stephen Head groundout scored Swearingen from third to tie the game and Chad Sterbens flew out to a diving Sean Gamble in left field to score Smith and make it 2-1 Ole Miss going to the bottom of the inning.
Chuck Jeroloman came up with several big plays in Auburn's Sunday victory.
Following a pattern of what teams have done to them recently, the Tigers answered back. Huddleston led off with a double into right-center that stopped in a pool of water left over from the rains. Following an Amonite walk and a wild pitch that moved both runners up a base, Clete Thomas drove home Huddleston with a ground ball to the right side. Scott Schade then followed suit with another ground ball to the right side to score Amonite. Playing fundamental baseball at it's finest, the Tigers took a 3-2 lead into the fifth.
With Speigner cruising on the mound, Auburn came back to try to end the game one inning later. Leading off the sixth, Amonite walked to bring Thomas to the plate. After attempting to bunt the runner over, Thomas drilled a fastball back at Holliman and it bounced away just far enough to allow both runners to reach safely. Doing his job once again, Schade bunted both runners over to bring Chuck Jeroloman to the plate.
Hitting just over .230 on the season, but one of Auburn's best clutch performers, Jeroloman said he went to the plate looking for a pitch to hit hard. That pitch came on a 3-1 count, but the sophomore couldn't pull the trigger and watched it for strike two. Laughing after the game when talking about his hit, Jeroloman said he was trying to fight off the full count pitch, but hit it straight into short center field for a single that scored both runners. Leading by three, Auburn was now in good shape to earn the series win and its best SEC record since 1999.
"Growing up I played for a great high school program," Jeroloman said. "We were always at the top, always playing in big games. I guess that has helped me out when I came here to get ready for any situation.
"It's always big to win your last home series, especially when you go out and play well," he added. "Hopefully, this will lock up a regional at home."
Jeroloman's day wasn't done, though, as he almost became the second Auburn player in as many days to end his season with an injury. With the outfield soaked in water, he went back on a short fly ball into center field in the top of the seventh. Called off by Moran, he tried to stop, but his leg buckled under and he hyperextended his right knee and sprained his ankle. Fighting off the trainers and Renfroe who wanted to take him out, he remained in the game.
All he would do just moments later is make the play of the game and maybe the defensive play of the season. With two outs, Pettway hit a roller up the middle. Ranging to his left, Jeroloman slid and caught the ball. Wheeling with his back to the infield, Jeroloman threw from his knees behind the second base bag and Amonite caught the ball just before the runner reached first. Greeted and mobbed by his teammates, Jeroloman's play summed up perfectly the attitude of the 2003 Tigers. While he was sore following the game, Jeroloman said he would be fine for Wednesday's game.
Auburn added a run in the seventh to put the game away when Moran led off the inning with a double to left-center field. Moving to third on a sacrifice bunt by Hulett, Moran watched as Ole Miss walked Huddleston intentionally to face Amonite. The plan looked like it would pay off as Amonite hit a ground ball to the right side. Hustling down the line, he beat the relay throw from shortstop Matt Tolbert and Moran scored to make it 6-2 Tigers to complete the scoring.
Auburn now faces the Vanderbilt Commodores at 10 a.m. Wednesday in the No. 3 vs. No. 6 game at the Hoover Met. At 1 p.m. South Carolina faces Alabama followed by the Mississippi State-Ole Miss matchup at 5 p.m. The nightcap features top overall seed LSU facing Arkansas in a rematch of this weekend's series in Fayetteville. An Auburn win in game one would pit the Tigers against the winner of the South Carolina-Alabama game at 5 p.m. Thursday. The losers play at 10 a.m. All games will be televised by Comcast/College Sports Southeast.