Struggling much of the early season to find their identity as a team, Auburn took the field Saturday hoping to get a win and establish some momentum heading into SEC play. Behind a strong pitching performance from Butts and relievers Chris Dennis and Luke Greinke, the Tigers did just that. Coach Tommy Slater said the pitching performance by Butts wasn't perfect, but he battled to get the job done.
"For Bret it was a day when his stuff really wasn't that good," Slater said. "Anytime a pitcher can go out without his best stuff and get you through five, you've got to feel great about it. We hung with him and he was able to flip the breaking ball in there and get them off-balance. He got a lot of front foot swings and that was the key tonight because the fastball wasn't as good as it has been in the past."
Dennis was another story altogether. His fastball was there from the first batter and he never let up in two innings, striking out three and throwing 19 strikes out of 28 pitches thrown. Slater said that Dennis' return on Saturday was a lift for his team.
"We wanted Chris to be able to start an inning," Slater said. "I wanted him to come in almost like a starter and let him start the sixth. What I'm most proud of with Chris was the strikes. He commanded the zone and I thought he really drove the ball down tonight. I thought he threw some sliders that were the best I've seen all year. He looked good. It was really good to see him come out and give us that kind of effort after a week and a half down."
For the second-straight day the Tigers got on the board first and both runs scored on at-bats from true freshmen. Leading off the second, Boutwell singled through the right side to put Auburn in business. Playing center field in place of Bruce Edwards, senior Derek Sain singled to right next to put a runner in scoring position. Attempting to move the runners up, catcher Jonathan Rasberry bunted back to Horne, but a wild throw loaded the bases with nobody out.
That would bring freshman Justin Bristow to the plate. Looking for a pitch to drive, Bristow hit a ground ball that turned into a double play. Boutwell did score to put Auburn up 1-0. The designated hitter on the day, fellow freshman Ben Jones followed with a fantastic at-bat where he fought off three two-strike pitches before a single to left scored Sain to make it 2-0 Tigers.
Birmingham-Southern cut the lead in half with a single run in the top of the fifth before the Tigers would answer thanks to the long ball. Leading off, right fielder Russell Dixon walked. Josh Donaldson then hit into a fielder's choice that retired Dixon at second. Bennett then did the damage with a two-run bomb to right field that put Auburn up 4-1. That would be the end of the day for Butts as Dennis came on for the Tigers.
In his first action on the mound in two weeks after suffering tendonitis in his throwing shoulder, Dennis was sharp as he retired the Panthers without damage for two innings. He said that he felt really good and his arm felt the best it has since the surgery.
"I was real excited to get back out," Dennis said. "It was only a week since I've thrown, but after missing a year it's kind of hard to take off. I felt really good, really strong. I was telling coach the other day, I threw a bullpen on Wednesday and Thursday is the best I've felt since my surgery. I felt alive and my arm felt good. I think the week off was big."
Dennis pitched two strong innings in relief for the Tigers.
With Dennis out the Tigers turned the game over to closer Luke Greinke in the eighth, but Auburn's defense almost cost him and the team as Scott Billak reached on a Bristow error to give the Panthers life. Two quick outs seemed to shut the door on Birmingham-Southern, but back-to-back singles by Blake Burton and Allen Aubin pushed across BSU's second run. Things got even hairier for Auburn as a wild pitch by Greinke moved the runners into scoring position, but a running catch of a Casey Bond liner by Dixon in right field put an end to the inning with the Tigers up 4-2. The Panthers would threaten with two runners on in the ninth, but Greinke got a strikeout to end the game and earn his third save of the season.
At the plate the Tigers were led by Boutwell and Jones who each had two hits. Bennett's home run was the big blow for Auburn as the Tigers had just nine hits on the day. The Panthers were held to nine hits as well with Mark Goforth and Matt Barber each getting two hits.
The Tigers and Panthers play the final game of the three-game series Sunday afternoon at one when freshman Evan Crawford takes the mound for Auburn against left-hander Blake Martin for Birmingham-Southern. Crawford is 1-2 with a 5.29 ERA while Martin enters 1-1 with an ERA of just 2.25.