Auburn, Ala.--Kentucky third baseman JaVon Shelby hit two home runs and drove in four for the Wildcats as they salvaged the third game of the series with the Auburn Tigers, taking a 9-6 win on Sunday. Starting pitcher Ben Braymer gave the Tigers a solid start, allowing three runs in four innings, but the bullpen gave up six runs in the next three innings to put a ninth inning comeback just out of reach.
Despite the loss it was a successful weekend for the Tigers (21-23, 7-14), winning their second conference series of the year and putting themselves back in the race for the SEC Tournament. Thompson said Sunday was an opportunity to make a big jump, but Kentucky (27-17, 11-10) pitcher Kyle Cody was just too good. Allowing just two earned runs on seven hits in seven and one/third innings, the right-hander kept the Tigers off balance and allowed Shelby to do his damage at the plate.
“The difference in their game was the starting pitcher and then Shelby,” Thompson said. “You always feel like if we can get to that bullpen our guys have shown that resiliency to keep trying to have good at-bats and finish the deal. That was no different again today.”
While the story of the game was Shelby and Cody for the Wildcats, a secondary theme was the work of home plate umpire Mark Chapman and his crew. That started early in the second inning when Shelby launched a deep fly ball to left field that was initially ruled a foul ball. Reviewing the play, the umpires changed it to a fair ball and put the Wildcats on the board first.
Later a controversial play at the plate when Kyler Deese ran over the Kentucky catcher ended with his ejection. That leaves Auburn without the junior for Friday night’s game at Alabama.
“I think Kyler lowered his shoulder there and I think that was an automatic rule that was put in this year,” Thompson said. “We were just trying to make sure we look at that call, that the catcher can’t just get right in front and block that thing without the baseball. That would be a play I would like to see, but I think the right call was actually made.”
At the plate Damon Haecker had three hits and drove home three runs for the Tigers with Anfernee Grier, Melvin Gray and Jordan Ebert all adding two hits each. For the game Auburn outhit Kentucky 12-9, but the Tigers left 11 runners on base and that proved to be huge on Sunday.
Following Shelby’s first home run , Auburn would tie the game in the fourth when Jackson Burgreen walked and advanced all the way to third on a wild pitch. A Haecker single pushed him across to put Auburn on the scoreboard, but an inning later the Wildcats would take control of the game for good.
Damon Haecker was 3-4 on Sunday to raise his average to .288 on the season.
Pitching well for the first four frames, Braymer walked the leadoff man to open the fifth and it would be downhill for Auburn the rest of the day. A Tristan Pompey single brought his day to a close with Daniel Sprinkle taking over. Pitching well his last two outings, Sprinkle allowed a bunt single to load the bases and then a one-out single to score two runs and put Kentucky up 3-1. Another single off Izaac Yarbrough would push it to a three-run lead for the Wildcats and that was enough for Cody.
In the seventh Kentucky broke the game open with five runs, three coming on a bomb by Shelby to left field off Daniel Robert in just his second mound appearance of the season. Now down 9-1, Auburn would threaten in the bottom of the seventh when the officiating issues would really come to a head. With the bases loaded and one out Grier stepped to the plate with a chance to do some damage.
With a 2-2 count Grier attempted to back away from an inside pitch but the ball hit the bottom of his bat and bounced in front of the plate. Even though the ball deflected off Grier’s body the umpires missed the call. Throwing to the plate for the force, Kentucky catcher Troy Squires tried to get Grier at first for the double play but the throw bounced off Grier to allow him to reach safely.
On second to start the play, Deese rounded third and headed for home on the throw to first. Picking up the errant throw, first baseman Evan White threw to Squires at the plate who was blocking the dish from Deese. Deese ran through the catcher just before he received the throw, causing Freeman to eject him and end the inning.
Auburn added a pair of runs in the bottom of the eighth inning and had the bases loaded for Cody Nulph, but his fly ball ended the threat. The Tigers would again get something going in the ninth off Kentucky closer Sean Hjelle. Consecutive singles from Grier, Gray and Ebert made it a 9-4 game. With one out Gray scored on a Blake Logan fielder’s choice to make it a four-run game. Another Haecker RBI single brought freshman Jonathan Foster to the plate as the game’s tying run with two outs in the ninth, but his groundout ended the game.
The Tigers return to action Friday night at 7 p.m. when they travel to Tuscaloosa to face Alabama in the of three games against the Crimson Tide.