Starting pitcher Clarence Nicely gave up just two earned runs on four hits in five innings while reliever Andy Masten picked up his third victory of the season in one inning of relief. Coach Tommy Slater said that Nicely's outing set the tone for the game on Tuesday as the Tigers improved to 12-12 overall with the victory.
"Clarence came out and just threw the ball very, very well," Slater said. "He commanded the strike zone and threw all of his pitches well tonight. That was big for us as shorthanded as we were tonight in the bullpen. To have Clarence come out and do what he did was really big for us. I'm just really proud of him because he works extremely hard. It was just a very good outing by him."
Nicely's five innings are a career high for the sophomore.
Offensively the Tigers had just seven hits on the night, but four came in a big sixth inning that included Bianucci's home run. Although he was later thrown out of Tuesday's game after taking issue with a call by home plate umpire John Register. Slater said Bianucci's home run was typical of the things the physical freshman does at the plate all the time.
"Mike obviously is an explosive hitter and he's capable," Slater said. "If you look at most of his hits they've been for extra bases. This weekend he had a home run, two doubles and a single. He's an explosive hitter and when pitchers make mistakes he generally makes them pay for us. That was a big lick for us."
Trailing 4-1 after some early defensive struggles put them in a hole, the Tigers finally got the offense going in the bottom of the sixth inning against Samford starter Stephen Artz. Leading off catcher Josh Donaldson ripped a double deep into the gap in left-center to get Auburn going. Following a fly ball from Andy Bennett, Jeff Boutwell singled sharply to left field to score Donaldson and make it 4-2 Bulldogs. That was just the start of good things for the Tigers though as the designated hitter Bianucci stepped to the plate looking to tie the game up with one swing.
Unfortunately for him he would have to do it against sidearm reliever Doug Denson. Being patient, Bianucci turned on an inside pitch and lifted it deep over the left field wall for a two-run shot. The blast was his fifth of the season and tied the game at four with still just one out in the inning. Shortstop Justin Bristow then reached on an error by shortstop Michael Marseco. One out later center fielder Bruce Edwards walked to bring second baseman Tyler Johnstone to the plate. Following a wild pitch that moved both runners up, Johnstone singled to left to score two more runs for the Tigers and give them a two-run advantage heading to the seventh.
The five-run inning was something the Tigers have not done much of this season, but it has happened each of the last two games. That is, they have bunched hits together and had clutch hits with runners in scoring position. Boutwell said he feels like the offense is coming together as the team prepares to delve fully into SEC play.
"We've struggled a little bit at the start of the season, but we're kind of finding our momentum as an offense," Boutwell said. "We're putting some decent innings together. We just did some of the little things tonight, base hit after base hit. We're taking our walks when we get them and we're getting bunts down. The coaches have just been relaying to us that all the little things are important and that we needed to step up on that. We have been the last two games."
Early on it appeared the Bulldogs would run away with this game. A single by Johnstone and a stolen base put him in position early for Russell Dixon as a single scored him with the game's first run in the bottom of the first. Although it was one of the few early leads this season for the Tigers, it didn't last as Samford came back with a flurry in the second thanks to some very shaky Auburn defense.
Leading off the second Parker Gargis ripped a liner into medium center field off Nicely. The son of former Auburn quarterback Phil Gargis, Parker watched as Edwards completely missed the ball in center and allowed him to advance to second on the error. That was just the start of a bad inning as Drew Reagan then walked to bring Bear Burnett to the plate. Doing his job well, Burnett bunted both runners up for the first out of the inning.
Up next, Garrett Rice hit a slow roller towards Stringer at third. Trying to make the play across the infield, Stringer's throw was wide at first and allowed both Gargis and Reagan to score. Rice advanced to second on the play and that would be important as one out later he would score on a Trey Moody infield single to give Samford a 3-1 lead. Things would remain that way until the sixth when the Bulldogs added a single run off reliever Andy Masden.
Things could have been worse if not for a good defensive play by Boutwell in left. With two outs and a runner on first the Bulldogs doubled into the corner in left. Boutwell's relay throw to Bristow in short left was perfect as he relayed to Stringer at third to catch the napping Samford runner for the final out of the inning. That set the stage for Auburn's offensive explosion in the bottom of the sixth to take over control of the game.
For the Tigers on offense Bianucci was the star of the game with his two-run bomb, but Johnstone, Boutwell and Dixon all had RBI on the night. For Samford, Artz allowed three runs on five hits in five and one/third innings and Denson took the loss, giving up two runs on three hits in one/third of an inning.
Auburn takes to the road for the first time in conference play this season when they travel to Nashville to face the Vanderbilt Commodores in a three-game series. Vanderbilt is 13-7 overall and 2-1 in SEC play coming into the series.