Auburn, Ala.--Niko Buentello’s solo shot with two outs in the eighth inning broke open a tie game on Saturday and Damon Haecker’s RBI single proved to be the game-winner for the Auburn Tigers as they held off Tennessee for a 7-6 win to take their first SEC series of the year. Trailing 5-0 early, Auburn got a strong pitching performance from freshman Casey Mize to stay in the game with Gabe Klobosits (2-2) pitching the final two innings to earn his second win of the year.
With the victory Auburn improves to 17-19 overall and 5-10 in SEC play and for Coach Butch Thompson it all starts with pitching and defense.
Committing five errors and a host of other mistakes in a Thursday loss to the Vols, Auburn played a second consecutive clean game in the field on the way to the victory.
“I think it was just the players themselves,” Thompson said. “I tip my hat to our players. I just thought they had the resolve. The energy in our dugout the last two days has been different. They didn’t blink when they got down today.
“Offense is fun and offense can will you a ballgame,” he added. “But if you want to be a consistent winner and start winning series there is no question you have to pitch and play defense. Baseball has always been that way.”
Tied 5-5 thanks to the pitching and defense, and missing opportunity after opportunity to break the game open, Auburn finally did just that in the bottom of the eighth inning and it all came with two outs. Potentially saving a run in the top of the inning with a diving stop at first, Buentello put the Tigers on top for the first time in Saturday’s game with one swing of the bat when his two-out homer to right field made it 6-5 Auburn.
“I needed that one,” Buentello said. “Props to them. They did a good job of pitching me with left-handed curveball after left-handed curveball. So when I saw the right-hander (Jon Lipinski) come up the ball looked like it was the size of a watermelon. I got a ball over the middle of the plate and I could handle and tried not to do too much with. I kept it simple and it happened to go out.”
Buentello congratulated by his teammates following his home run in the 8th
The Tigers weren’t done however as Blake Logan was hit by a pitch and moved to second on a wild pitch and into scoring position for Damon Haecker. Already reaching base four times on the game with three walks and a hit-by-pitch, Haecker laced a single through the right side to score Logan and give reliever Gabe Klobosits a two-run cushion to work with in the ninth.
It was needed as the Vols scored a run on a two-out single to make it a one-run game before Klobosits faced Tyler Schulz with runners on first and second and two outs in the ninth. Falling behind 2-0, Klobosits came back to even the count before he struck out the Tennessee catcher looking to end the game.
On the mound starter Andrew Mitchell retired just two Tennessee batters in a dreadful start for the Tigers, but Mize picked up the slack in a big way for Auburn. Going six and one/third innings, allowing just two runs on four hits, Mize struck out four and walked just one and was the guy that gave his team a chance for the comeback win.
“He’s the pitcher of the day because there were so many goose eggs thrown up by him,” Thompson said. “He actually gave up the home run to (Nick) Senzel. Every time he comes up, him and (Vincent) Jackson, those are two special SEC hitters. That was enough. We talked about that we wanted command and we got a good road map shown to us by Justin (Camp) yesterday.
“We didn’t want to get too far down in the game to start seeing that road map,” he added. “Casey got us out of the first and had some adversity in the second and then did a great job of letting our offense playing and getting us back in the ballgame.”
At the plate freshman catcher Jonathan Foster led the Tigers with three hits while Jordan Ebert and Buentello both finished with a pair of hits in a 10-hit attack for the Auburn offense. It wasn’t the biggest of days but Buentello said they kept grinding and that started on defense.
“It helps when you know that you’ve got a bunch of guys behind you, but the thing this weekend that helped us out was the way we played defense. If we would have played defense like this we would have a lot more wins on our record right now. The defense is going to carry over to next week and help us out a lot.”
Much like Thursday, Saturday’s game couldn’t have started much worse for the Tigers as Mitchell lasted just two/thirds of an inning and allowed three runs to put Auburn in a huge hole to start with. Before the Tigers could get the offense going it would become a 5-0 Tennessee lead in the second when Senzel blasted a two-run shot to right field off Mize to put Auburn in a huge hole.
In the bottom of the third the Tigers finally got some offense going three-straight singles by Anfernee Grier, Melvin Gray and Ebert loaded the bases with nobody out for the heart of the order. A Buentello groundout to first pushed across Grier with Auburn’s first run and later Haecker was hit by a pitch to score Gray and cut the lead down to 5-2.
The Tigers would continue to chip away with a single run in the fourth and two more runs in the fifth to keep the pressure on a Tennessee bullpen that has struggled all season long. Leaving a pair of runners on base in the sixth, Auburn’s offense missed an opportunity to take the lead but wouldn’t do the same in a big eighth inning that would prove to be the difference.