Auburn starter Colby Paxton was the story of the game for Auburn. After giving up five runs in the first inning to the Tar Heels, the sophomore didn't allow a run the rest of the way and only gave up four hits before giving way to reliever Ken Clayton in the eighth inning. Clayton closed the door on the Auburn win by pitching two innings, allowing just three hits and striking out five.
"He wasn't sharp," Auburn coach Steve Renfroe said of Paxton. "I've seen this happen after rain delays. His velocity was pretty good in the first inning, but it was straight. He usually has a lot of life. He went out in the first and everything was up and when Colby is up, that's not good. All of the sudden we're down 5-0. I went out and I said, ‘You know, these are yours, you're staying. I'm sorry but you're going to have to hang in there for us for a while.' And he did. We needed him to do it, but of course our offense jumped back in there and got it even then Colby got better as the game went along."
The outing was yet another sign that Paxton is developing as a starting pitcher. Working through problems is always something that a starter needs to be able to do in order to survive in times when his stuff isn't the best and that was definitely the case for Paxton on Saturday. Without his breaking ball early, the big right-hander had to battle through it but he says he eventually got the feeling he was in control in the middle innings.
"I finally started locating my fastball," Paxton said. "I still never really had a great slider like I should, but basically confidence in my fastball was big because everything works off your fastball. I finally starting to get command of that and that was the difference. About the third or fourth inning I really started to locate and get the feel for my breaking ball and my fastball was where I wanted it to be. Once you get that going it's going to be a little easier because in the first inning I just didn't have it. I battled and it came back to me finally."
Colby Paxton earned his fourth win of the season Saturday by pitching seven innings and giving up eight hits and five earned runs.
While Paxton was battling on the mound, the Tiger hitters were struggling at the plate. Following a first inning outburst that saw Auburn score five runs on five hits, the Tigers managed just two hits from the second inning until that all-important seventh inning.
Most of the credit for the dry spell by the Tigers should go to North Carolina relievers Kevin Brower and Michael Gross, who combined to allow just five hits in six and one/thirds innings. But it was one hit that would be the beginning of the end for the Tar Heels on Saturday and it came from, off all places, a freshman.
Looking to protect the plate on a full count, Hulett punched a single to left field to open the bottom of the seventh inning. With yet another full count on the next batter Scott Schade, Hulett was off and running and safely slid into second after Schade missed the pitch for the first out of the inning.
Mike Mueller, the designated hitter, was walked intentionally to set up the force with Trent Pratt coming to the plate. The move almost worked to perfection as Pratt lined one to Chad Prosser at shortstop, catching Mueller off guard. Luckily for Auburn, Prosser's throw was off line allowing Todd a chance to drive home the go-ahead run. Without a hit on the night and well under .300 for the year, Todd didn't let that stop him as he lined a single to right field on a 1-2 count to score Hulett and give Auburn the 6-5 lead.
Auburn added insurance in the eighth another freshman, this time Chuck Jeroloman, started things off with a single. With Jonathan Schuerholz at the plate trying to sacrifice him to second, North Carolina pitcher Scott Senatore threw one to the screen putting Jeroloman on second. Just trying to get him to third, Schuerholz put down a perfect bunt single that Senatore couldn't handle and suddenly the Tigers had runners on first and third with nobody out. Although the Tigers could manage just one run across on a balk by new pitcher Carter Harrell, that's all they would need with Clayton on the mound.
With a nasty slider in his command, the redshirt freshman reliever completely stymied the Tar Heels in both the eighth and ninth innings with his off-speed wizardry. Although he gave up three hits in two innings, Clayton struck out five of the nine North Carolina hitters he faced to earn his second save of the season and set Auburn up for a potential series sweep on Sunday.
"My last couple of outings have been very inconsistent so it felt good to go out and get the job done," Clayton said. "Coach told me I threw 24 sliders, five fastballs and five change-ups. I kept them off-balance and it seemed to work."
Clayton added, "I think to win tomorrow would be huge. Putting down a good ball club in three games heading into SEC play this weekend would be huge for us to get on a roll."
This game appeared to be headed for a scoring-fest early on as both teams pounded the ball in the first inning and lit the scoreboard up like a pinball machine.
The Tar Heels got the ball rolling first in the top of the inning and a lead-off walk was the culprit for the Tigers. Adam Greenberg reached on a base-on-balls from Paxton and Russ Adams followed with a single to left to give North Carolina runners on first and third with nobody out. Following a Sean Farrell strikeout, the Tar Heels would get on the board with a Ron Braun single to right field that scored Greenberg.
Chris Maples followed with a double to left and before the inning was done right fielder Mell Adams would double as well as the Tar Heels put five on the board to take the big early lead.
Designated hitter Mike Mueller connects on a double in the second inning, one of his two hits on the day.
Auburn didn't wait to answer back in the bottom half of the inning and Javon Moran started it off with another infield single, beating the throw from the shortstop Prosser on a slow roller. Hulett followed with a sharp liner that got to the wall just in front of Farrell in left field for a double and the Tigers were in business.
After a Schade fly out to right field, Mueller got the pitch he was looking for and pushed it to left for a single that scored Hulett with the second run of the inning. Following back-to-back walks to Pratt and Todd, freshman Matt Grooms would again come through in the clutch just like he did on Friday night, this time singling up the middle to score Mueller and Pratt and make the score 5-4.
A Jeroloman single to center pushed across the final Auburn run of the inning, but not before Auburn evened the score at five. That set the stage once again for some late-inning Auburn heroics at Plainsman Park.
Sunday afternoon Auburn and North Carolina square-off in the final game of the three game series at 1:30 at Plainsman Park. The Tigers send junior Levale Speigner to the mound to face freshman Garry Bakker for the Tar Heels. Speigner is 3-1 on the season with an earned run average of 3.71 while Bakker is is 1-0 with an ERA of 1.69.
After the Sunday game, Auburn returns to action Tuesday in Montgomery when they face the Troy State Trojans at 6:30 p.m. at Paterson Field.
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