Auburn, Ala.--Struggling for much of the season to get the key hit late in games the Auburn Tigers did plenty of that on Saturday night against the Kentucky Wildcats as Butch Thompson’s team broke open a tie game with four runs in the eighth inning to win 10-6. Freshman Casey Mize was strong out of the bullpen, allowing just four hits and no runs in three innings to earn his second win of the year as the Tigers improve to 20-23 overall and 7-13 in SEC play.
For Auburn it was a game of comebacks as they trailed 5-0 early, but used some strong defensive plays in the outfield and a pair of big hits by Anfernee Grier and Jackson Burgreen to get back in the game. Grier’s three-run triple in the second put the Tigers on the board before Burgreen’s two-run homer in the third tied the game.
That was all leading to the big eighth inning for Auburn when they broke the game open. Leading things off, first baseman Niko Buentello doubled to give the crowd of 3,398 at Plainsman Park something to cheer about. Following a sacrifice bunt, Kentucky reliever Logan Sallow walked both Burgreen and Damon Haecker to load the bases. Throwing two balls to Kyler Deese, Sallow was pulled for Sean Hjelle and his first pitch went to the backstop, allowing Buentello to score the eventual game-winner.
Niko Buentello gets his foot in before the tag from the Kentucky pitcher
Auburn wasn’t done however as Deese walked to load the bases once again and Cody Nulph made the Wildcats pay, singling through the right side to score two runs and put the Tigers in front 9-6. Grier finished things off for Auburn with a single up the middle to score Deese for the four-run lead. Mize closed the door on the Wildcats (26-17, 10-10) to preserve the win.
“t was a kind of go for broke type deal, which his kind of fun,” Thompson said of turning to Mize, his potential Sunday starter. “I think the guys kind of thrive off of that so we dump Casey Mize in the ballgame. I think fortunate to get out of that inning being tied but the guys had a sense of urgency to help win for him. I told him the plan was to be ready to go either way because I want to give him a chance to win a ballgame and pitch in the moment. Casey finished that ballgame for us, which was huge.”
Entering the game in the seventh inning up 6-5 with runners on first and second for Kentucky and nobody out, Mize allowed a double to JaVon Shelby in the inning to score a run but that would be it for the Wildcats. It proved to be right move for Thompson and one that Mize said he really enjoyed being a part of.
“Yeah, coming into the game they said, ‘Hey, we may need you to close it out. Just be ready.’ I came into the dugout like the fifth inning or so, and Coach said, ‘If we take the lead, I want you to go down there.’ So we took it and I went down there. Yeah, I was expecting it, and then we got there and I did what I needed to do.”
Offensively it was once again Grier that led the way for the Tigers with two hits and four RBI, but he got some much-needed help from Burgreen as well. The Athens native got a pair of hits, including a two-run home run, to continue an impressive stretch. He’s now reached safely in 14 consecutive games, a career high for him, and said this was about a team that just refused to give in.
“We just keep battling,” Burgreen said. “I feel like if we’re down 20 runs in the ninth inning we’re going to make a run at it. We just stay good at the plate and get a pitch we like to hit and put a good swing on it.”
Early on it was all Kentucky as the Wildcats jumped on Camp right out of the gate. Getting a leadoff single, Kentucky took advantage of a one-out error on Haecker to put runners on first and second. Getting a pitch to drive, JaVon Shelby smashed a double off the wall to score the first run of the game. Following a groundout that scored a run, Riley Mahan dropped a single just over the head of Nulph at short to make it 3-0 Kentucky.
In the second the Wildcats would add to their lead thanks to one swing of the bat. With a runner on first and two outs, left fielder Zach Reks launched a deep home run to right field that gave his team a five run advantage to work with.
That would normally have been enough for Kentucky starter Dustin Buggs, but on Saturday that wasn’t the case. Entering the game with a 7-1 record and an ERA of just 2.30, the senior ran into trouble in the bottom of the second when Auburn loaded the bases thanks to a walk to Blake Logan and a pair of singles by Haecker and Kyler Deese.
Following a Nulph strikeout it was time for Grier to do his thing. Taking a fastball the other way, Grier blasted a triple off the wall in right-center to clear the bases and cut the Kentucky lead down to two.
In the third Auburn came all the way back thanks to the bat of Burgreen. Taking care of all three outs in the top of the inning in left field, one on a great play deep into the canyon in left-center, Burgreen stepped to the plate with Jordan Ebert on second and two outs. With just one home run on the season the senior turned around a fastball in a hurry, blasting it over the center field wall to tie the game at five.
“It started with the previous at-bat,” Burgreen said. “He threw me a curveball and I feel like I put a good swing on it and just barely missed it. He threw me the same pitch and I feel like I put a good swing on it. I have been trying to hit balls out of center field in batting practice and I can’t do it, I don’t have enough muscle. Thankfully it got out of here.”
Each team would add a single run to tie the game at six and set the stage for Auburn’s big eighth inning to break the game open.
The Tigers will go for the sweep on Sunday. The first pitch is scheduled for 1 p.m. with Ben Braymer on the mound for Auburn.