Tigers Stick It To Tar Heels In The Ninth

The Tigers struck late to defeat North Carolina in the opener of a three-game series at Plainsman Park.

Auburn, Ala.—Freshman Matt Grooms hit a two-out, two-run home run in the bottom of the eighth inning to tie the game setting the stage for Scott Schade's dramatic one-out double in the ninth inning to score Javon Moran as the Auburn Tigers (13-4) defeated North Carolina (5-7) 6-5 Friday night at Plainsman Park.

Freshman Matt Grooms is in his home run trot after his first college homer.

The win comes on not the best of nights for the Tigers as they collected just eight hits off Tar Heel pitching and committed three errors. The one bright spot continues to be the pitching as starter Eric Brandon and relievers Arnold Hughey, Andrew Skinner and Cory Dueitt combined to allow just 10 hits on a night that they could have easily folded many times.

"I told the guys, I'm so tickled I can't hardly stand it," Auburn coach Steve Renfroe said following the win. "We play better defense than that. In the outfield there were four balls that should have been caught. Two off the wall, those are outs, we just didn't play them like we normally do on the wall...to pitch through that, Eric did not have his stuff and yet he gave us a winning effort.

"Then That statement was never more true than on Friday night as North Carolina consistently got runners on base only to see them stranded as the innings ended. Leaving 11 men on base for the game, the Tar Heels couldn't come up with big hit when they needed it most. That wasn't the problem for the Tigers as two swings were the difference between winning and losing Friday night.

The Auburn bench watches the Tigers rally in the eighth inning.

Trailing 5-3 heading to the bottom of the eighth inning, Auburn was hoping for someone to step up to the plate and give the team some life. Schade had his first chance at hero status as he led off the inning, but struck out for the third time on the night and there was one out. Designated hitter Mike Mueller was due up next and the big lefty hit the first pitch he saw into shallow left field for out number two.

Senior Trent Pratt, like he has done all year, came up big with a single to right field giving the Tigers life, albeit very fleeting with two outs. That didn't stop Grooms. Batting just .176 as he came to the plate, the Montgomery native found exactly the pitch he was looking for and hit a towering shot deep to right-center field that easily cleared the wall for his first home run of the season. With the game now tied at five, Auburn had the momentum it needed to finish off the Tar Heels in the ninth.

"I was looking straight fastball," Grooms said. "Dead red. I've been struggling a little bit. That will have help my confidence and that gives me a little boost."

Cory Dueitt works from the stretch in relief vs. North Carolina.

Following a three-up and three-down inning from Dueitt in the top of the ninth, Auburn came into the bottom of the ninth inning with the top of the order coming to the plate. Speedy center fielder Javon Moran started things off just like he has so many times with an infield single that just hopped over the head of North Carolina closer Chris Maples.

Following a failed bunt attempt by Jonathan Schuerholz, Schade came to the plate seeking redemption. With three strikeouts on the night, the sophomore said he was just looking for a good pitch to hit. Down 0-1, he got just that as he drilled a deep fly ball over the head of North Carolina right fielder Chase Younts to send Moran on the move. Compounding the predictament, Younts bobbled the ball while trying to pick it up allowing Moran to score all the way from first with the winning run.

"That's what baseball is about as Coach (Chris) Finwood just said," Schade said. "You can have a day like that, a hat trick, and then come up big. That's the time of the game you dream about right there...UNC is a great club. That's what we're going to see every week, 30 games of that. We're excited because we didn't play very well, three errors. We didn't play well in the field. It's a big win.

"That's something that we need to do, just grind it out. Situations like that when we don't have it we just have to keep grinding and when you have opportunities take advantage of them."

Leading 3-2 heading to the top of the eighth, things looked good for the Tigers with a fully-stocked bullpen to turn to. But that wouldn't work out like planned as the Tar Heels touched up Auburn relievers for three runs to take a 5-3 advantage. With one out and nobody on, Chris Iannetta doubled to right field to get the inning going for North Carolina. That move would signal the end of reliever Skinner's night in favor of Dueitt.

That seemed to be the right move as Chad Prosser grounded out to Chuck Jeroloman for the second out of the inning. But lead-off man Adam Greenberg came through with a hard-hit ground ball that just glanced off a sliding Schuerholz's glove into right field for a double that scored Iannetta to tie the game.

After an intentional walk to Russ Adams to put the force in play, Sean Farrell doubled to the right field corner to score both runs, but only after a 1-2 pitch from Dueitt that appeared to be strike three was called a ball much to the displeasure of the Auburn crowd. Leading 5-3, the Tar Heels headed to the eighth looking for the all-important Friday night win.

North Carolina wasted little time in getting to Brandon early as the second batter, Russ Adams, singled to left and Sean Farrell followed suit, also singling to left just in front of Sean Gamble, who got a late jump on a ball hit off the end of the bat. After both runners moved up on Brandon's first wild pitch of the season, Adams would score on a Ron Braun groundout for the early 1-0 North Carolina lead.

But Auburn would answer back in a strange way. Moran led off the bottom of the first by drawing a walk from Tar Heel starter Scott Autrey. With Tug Hulett at the plate, Moran would move to second on a wild pitch. After Hulett failed to move Moran along Gamble would again advance a base during Schade's first at-bat. Following a Schade strikeout, Mueller came up with a big two-out single to score Moran and tie the game at one.

Auburn added another run in the third and once again a lead-off walk was the key play of the inning. Shortstop Chuck Jeroloman drew the base-on-balls to open the inning and Moran followed with a bunt single to put runners on first and second. Following a perfect sacrifice bunt by Hulett, Schade did his job by pushing a ground ball to the right side that scored Jeroloman giving Auburn the 2-1 lead.

Third baseman Josh Todd (foreground) and shortstop Chuck Jeroloman wait on the pitch in Auburn's first home night game of the season.

With the game tied at two, the Tigers dodged a huge bullet in the top of the sixth, one that could have changed the complete tone of the game. With Brandon struggling to find his range, the Tar Heels loaded the bases with nobody out. The last runner reached on an error by Josh Todd on an attempted sacrifice bunt after Hughey had replaced Brandon on the mound. In the toughest of all spots, Hughey responded by striking out Adams for the first out of the inning.

With the right-handed Farrell on deck, Renfroe once again went to the bullpen for the sophomore Skinner. North Carolina would try a little trickery with Farrell at the plate, trying a suicide squeeze. But there was only one problem--Farrell missed the pitch leaving Iannetta hanging off of third base for the second out. Skinner would strike out Farrell to end the inning sending the Auburn crowd into a frenzy and setting the stage for this one to go down to the wire.

Auburn and North Carolina tangle in the second game of the three-game set Saturday at 3 p.m. when sophomore Colby Paxton squares off with left-hander Daniel Moore from North Carolina. Paxton enters with a 3-1 record and an ERA of 4.35 while Moore is 1-0 on the season with an ERA of 6.89.

Box Score

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