In an NCAA Regional Tournament elimination game Saturday night at beautiful Plainsman Park, the homestanding Tigers played beautiful baseball to eliminate Clemson 15-0 in the double-elimination affair. Nothing was more pleasing to the eyes of the Tigers than the pitching performance they got from starter Colby Paxton. "It was a good game," Paxton said. "I had most of my pitches working and the key was the guys played behind me. Karl (Amonite) made some great plays over there on (Michael) Johnson's balls. I thought it was the best we played, clicking together, that I have seen in a long time."
The Tigers take the field again Sunday at 1:30 p.m. and must take two victories vs. Ohio State to keep the season alive and advance to the super regional. (Tickets are still available.) Ohio State, the Big 10 Tournament champion which defeated the Tigers on Saturday afternoon 6-2, only has to win one game to be the winner of the regional as the third seed. If Auburn wins the first game, a second one will start 50 minutes later.
Auburn improved its record to 42-20 and Clemson of the Atlantic Coast Conference, a College World Series participant last year, ended its season at 39-22. It was the first time that Clemson was shutout this season and the five hits were the lowest total since the Tigers beat them on two hits in Clemson's season opener at Auburn. The Tigers won that series two games to one.
"We got it handed to us tonight," Clemson coach Jack Legett said. "They played extremely well. They swung the bats from top to bottom as well as anybody has all year long and Paxton pitched extremely well. We couldn't stay off chasing that slider. He knew where to throw it and had great control of it. I was disappointed for our team because I thought we were ready to play. We just got behind. The first five innings we couldn't get them out. By that time, the damage had been done."
Colby Paxton went the distance and rested the Auburn bullpen on Saturday night.
Paxton, who came into the contest with a 3.99 earned run average, improved his record to 7-3. Paxton threw the fourth shutout ever for an Auburn pitcher in NCAA regional play. The Tigers had two in 1994 and one in 1997 and advanced to the College World Series both of those years. He also threw just the second complete game of the 2003 season for the Tigers, giving up just five hits as he threw an 107-pitch gem.
Paxton said it was his best outing of the season. His breaking balls were very effective. Clemson's hitters said the right-hander's slider was tough to handle. Paxton said he used that pitch to get ahead early in the count and also used it as an out pitch along with a curve ball.
In addition to the impressive pitching from Paxton, Auburn was flawless in the field and did everything well. The Tigers stole bases when needed, picked up clutch hits and never did anything to encourage Clemson that a comeback was possible after Auburn took control early in the contest.
"Colby Paxton was the story," said Auburn coach Steve Renfroe, who noted that the other key theme of the evening was the way his team pounded the baseball, especially early in the contest. "We had one more bullet in our gun today than they had," he added, noting that Clemson had burned eight pitchers in the tournament while Auburn was able to go with one of its top hurlers in the contest.
"The hitters had a great day," Renfroe noted. "That was just what the doctor ordered."
Chuck Jeroloman is ruled safe at third base in the sixth inning when the Tigers scored one run.
Renfroe said his team went into the Saturday contest with the mindset it was a "one game season." He said, "You never know what is going to happen in baseball. You can get a guy hot tonight like we did and get a guy throwing.
"You don't look at it is a doubleheader (the Sunday game/games). You look at it as one game. We told our guys to get rested and find what energy you have left for game one because if you get to game two there will be an awful lot of adrenalin."
Freshman Chris Dennis, who pitched well in the SEC Tournament, will start the first game on Sunday. Eric Brandon is another pitcher with starting experience who could be available for game two if the Tigers get there.
The Tigers took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning as Javon Moran got on base using his speed for an infield hit on a ground ball to shortstop. He stole second base, his 25th of the season and career high, to move into scoring position. That is what he did, with ease, as Tug Hulett laced an opposite field line drive double that bounced all the way to the Green Monster in left field.
After Bobby Huddleston struck out, Karl Ammonite came through with a two-out line drive single to center to put the Tigers up 2-0. Ammonite was ruled out on a questionable call at second base as he tried to advance on the throw to the plate.
Auburn kept up the attack to start the third inning. Clete Thomas reached first on an infield single over the second base bag. He moved up a base on a steal and reached third as Scott Schade grounded a ball into left field for a single, putting runners on first and third. Thomas put the Tigers up 3-0 as Derek Sain's hard-hit ground ball was turned into a 4-6-3 double play.
The Tigers continued their offensive assault in the third inning as Sean Gamble drilled a double down the right field line and scored as Moran's triple to the right center field gap brought the Plainsman Park crowd to its feet.
Tug Hulett picked up his second RBI of the night on a ground out to second base, putting the Tigers up 5-0. The next batter, Huddleston, reached first on a base and balls and after that Coach Jack Leggett had seen enough. Starter Aaron Troila, the eighth pitcher Clemson had used in the tournament, was gone along with his 0-0 record and 7-7 earned run average. Clemson called on Jeff Hourigan.
The new pitcher struck out Ammonite, but gave up an infield hit to Clete Thomas that allowed Hulett to reach third on a throwing error by the second baseman. He scored from there on a wild pitch putting the Tigers up 6-0. He then walked Scott Schade, but got out of the inning as Derek Sain grounded out to second base.
A hustling defensive play kept Clemson off the scoreboard in the top of the fourth. Clemson star Michael Johnson opened the inning with a line drive opposite field double to left. With two outs, he advanced to third on a balk but was stranded there when Sean Gamble made a diving, head-first catch on a line drive to shallow left field.
Clemson looked like it would get through the fourth inning without giving up a run. However, the Tigers scored again as Moran walked with two outs, stole second and scored as Hulett drilled a double off the base of the wall in right center to make the score 7-0.
Auburn added another run on a bizarre infield single by Huddleston, by far the slowest man in the Auburn lineup. He broke his metal bat and the ball and the bat both rolled towards a startled shortstop, who first made a break on the bat head before realizing he was chasing the wrong projectile. That scored Hulett and put the catcher on first base for a nice view of Amonite's rocket shot towards the fans watching for free on the hill in right center field. The homer put the Tigers on top 10-0.
Auburn added a single run in the sixth inning and left the bases loaded to make it 11-0 before finally going an inning without scoring as Clemson retired the Tigers in the seventh inning.
In the bottom of the eighth it turned from ugly to uglier for the purple and orange clad Clemson boys when Schade drilled a four-run homer into the bullpen in right center field to stretch the lead to 15-0 with Auburn's 17th and final hit of the evening.
Renfroe says that he believes his team's trademark is mental toughness. "You go through this season and they have never quit on anbody," the coach said. "There have been some bad games. We played people who were just better than us that day. That happened to us (vs. Ohio State on Saturday afternoon.) They were better coaches than I was, they made plays, they pitched, they did everything better so they won."
Baseball Notes: Auburn improved its record to 10-2 vs. ACC teams this year...In his two previous regional tournament appearances, Paxton totaled 8 1/3 innings of work. Auburn's Sunday starter, Chris Dennis, has a 3-2 record with a 3.27 earned run average. Ohio State starter Chris Hanners is 4-4 with a 5.82 earned run average...Third baseman Scott Schade hadn't hit an homer all season until drilling two on Saturday, one in each game. "My swing felt good," he said. "I am starting to fiture little things out. It took me about three years, giving coach some more gray hairs...Coach Steve Renfroe said the momentum generated by having 17 hits in the Clemson game is "big" for his team that had not been hitting the ball as well late in the season as it was earlier in the year...Javon Moran's triple was the 12th of his career, tying the junior for 12th in school history...Paxton's shutout was the fourth ever by an Auburn team in NCAA regional play. Jon Powell did it vs. Virginia Tech at the six-team format Clemson Regional in 1994 and combined with closer Ryan Halla for a shutout that same tournament vs. Notre Dame. In 1997, Bryan Hebson of pitched a shutout vs. South Florida at the Tallahassee regional...Paxton ended a 22-game hitting streak by Clemson's David Slevin...Clemson coach Jack Leggett went out of his way to praise Auburn for how it is running the baseball regional at Plainsman Park.