Cardiac Cats Open Season In Familar Fashion

For the second-straight year the Auburn Tigers won the season opener 5-4 with a run in the bottom of the ninth inning.

Auburn, Ala.--With the game on the line second baseman Tug Hulett said that he was the one that wanted the chance to win the game and that's just what he did for the 12th-ranked Auburn Tigers in the season opener Friday night against Western Carolina. Tied at four in the bottom of the ninth, Hulett drilled a one-out fastball off Brian McCullen to deep right field for a single to score freshman Cory Zimmerman from third base with the winning run.

"I definitely wanted to be up," Hulett said. "Every time the game is on the line I want the ball hit to me, I want the bat in my hands. I like that. I like the pressure. I love it.

"We had a bunch of guys out there battling their brains out," Hulett added. "The pitching staff did a great job keeping us in the game and we came through with some big hits when we had to make plays. I had to make up for an error I made earlier in the game. I had to do something."

Center fielder Clete Thomas, shortstop Chuck Jeroloman and third baseman Ben Maitland each had two hits to lead the Tigers at the plate. Auburn starting pitcher Mike Felix lasted just three innings on Friday, giving up five hits and four runs while striking out four. Reliever John Madden was the star of the day for the Tigers on the mound, throwing five hitless innings and allowing only three walks. Relievers Chris Dennis and Cory Dueitt combined for 2 1/3 scoreless innings, setting the stage for closer Steven Register to earn the win with 2/3 of an inning in the ninth to get the win.

Clete Thomas with one of his two hits on the day.

"Guys stepped up," Auburn Coach Steve Renfroe said. "Our bullpen was outstanding. Ben Maitland, a new guy, comes in and plays great defense and has a sacrifice bunt. Ben Sprague comes in, his first at-bat is a huge one for us, and comes through for us. We had a lot of guys step up. John Madden came in and stopped the bleeding and gets us in a rhythm for the game. Then you set the game up for Tug and you have to feel good. He came through as Tug does."

Auburn almost didn't get the opportunity to get the win, but Register made sure a tight strike zone by the umpire didn't deter his mission to earn the victory. Dueitt started the ninth and gave up a bloop single to Kilmer to start things off. Following a sacrifice bunt Renfroe called for the closer to come in and save the day. That's what he did, but not before he loaded the bases with two walks. Register put an end to the inning with the bases loaded as he struck out Chris Davis looking to send the crowd into an uproar.

"My catcher came out and told me two pitches were right down the middle," Register said. "It just kind of makes you wonder. It's just one of those things you have to fight through. It's like not having your stuff when you go out there. You just have to push through and do your best and hope the outcome is good.

"Felix did a good job," Register added. "He's just a freshman and he'll get better as he gets experience. We fought back at the end and that's huge. To come back at the end is huge for us and hopefully we'll continue that through the weekend."

Tied at four Josh Sullivan walked to lead off the bottom of the ninth and Zimmerman was inserted to run for the catcher. Maitland then put down a sacrifice bunt to move Zimmerman into scoring position with just one out. With Williamson due up Renfroe decided to go to junior college outfielder Ben Sprague and he delivered with a line-drive single to put runners on first and third for Hulett's game-winner.

Early on the Tigers couldn't get anything going offensively or on the mound as true freshman starter Mike Felix was up and down in his first career outing. Despite pitching well, he had some problems that put Auburn in the hole after the Tigers had taken a one-run lead in the second inning on a Jeroloman single that scored Thomas from second after the sophomore doubled to open the inning.

The Catamounts got the run back and more in the third with the help of the long ball. Catcher Brian Sigmon got the inning started when he was hit by a pitch from Felix. A double by Wayne Kilmer followed to put runners on second and third with no outs. Following a sacrifice fly to left-center to score Sigmon and a strikeout, Jared Greenwood took a Felix breaking ball deep over the right field wall for a home run. Leading 3-1 the inspired Catamounts were feeling good.

Mike Felix is his first career start as a Tiger.

Auburn would get one back in the bottom of the inning and Maitland got it started with a single to left field. Right fielder J.T. Williamson then put down a perfect drag bunt towards first base that WCU was unable to handle, putting runners on first and second with nobody out. A walk to Hulett loaded the bases with still nobody out, but the Tigers could manage but one run as a ground ball, pop up and line out closed the inning. Trailing 3-2 Auburn was hoping to get a stop, but that changed with one swing of the bat.

Leading off the top of the fourth, right fielder Alex Gary took a cut at the first pitch and bombed it over the left field wall for a solo home run. Trailing 4-2 Renfroe turned to Madden to get the job done and he delivered in a big way. The junior college side-arm hurler kept the Catamounts at bay and gave the Tigers a chance to make a comeback. Down 4-2 Auburn would scratch out another run in the bottom half of the inning on Maitland single to center to score Jeroloman after his second single of the night to center field..

"I like what I saw," Renfroe said of Felix. "He was going and he was at his pitch count. We wanted to run him out there and see if he could get through a couple of more guys and stretch him out. He made two bad pitches. He got tired quick and his breaking ball was rolling. I think if you look at his stuff you'll see why we like him."

Unfortunately for Auburn that's all they would get because of the terrific pitching of Josey. The lefty was terrific, allowing just six hits and three runs in seven innings of work. He threw just 95 pitches on the day and kept Auburn from getting anything going offensively after the fourth inning. Both teams were held scoreless until the Tigers finally broke through in the bottom of the eighth.

Hulett led off the inning by earning a walk on four pitches from WCU's Barnes. With Sean Gamble at the plate the Tigers decided to swing away and that strategy appeared to backfire when he hit a one-hopper back to Barnes on the mound. The lefty turned and threw to the bag at second, but shortstop Roper let the ball glance off his glove into center field.

The error allowed Hulett to move to third and Gamble hustle into first on the error. Catcher Josh Bell then hit a slow roller into the hole between the second and first basemen for WCU. Running deep into the hole, Kilmer made the play and got Gamble at second for the out, but Hulett scored on the play to tie the game at four. A flyout by Jeroloman and a Derek Sain groundout put an end to the Auburn threat and set the stage for a dramatic ninth inning.

Auburn returns to action Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m. when they take on Western Carolina in game two of the three game series. Junior left-hander Arnold Hughey will take the mound for the Tigers against junior Derrick Hawk for WCU. Last season Hughey was 6-6 with a 4.15 ERA in 18 starts while Hawk was 8-1 with a 2.25 earned run average in 11 relief appearances.

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