It wasn't the outcome that was the key for Dennis and Coach Tommy Slater though, it was the delivery. For the first time in more than a month, Dennis felt good on the mound and that was enough to give him the ball again this weekend in the rubber game of a series against Mississippi State.
That proved to be the right decision as Dennis allowed just four hits and two runs in five innings of work to pick up his second win as the Tigers defeated the Bulldogs 7-3 to win the series and improve to 18-21 overall and 6-9 in SEC play. Dennis said that the confidence he gained last weekend proved to be huge for him in Sunday's start.
"I felt good in my work this week," Dennis said. "I got some good work in and before the game I was confident I was going to pitch well today. It was the first weekend that I felt really healthy.
"I thought I pitched really well, but they kind of put some stuff together and I started getting hard late (at Ole Miss). I really thought I threw a lot better and it built up a little momentum even though statistically it was probably my worst outing."
For Slater the decision was a no-brainer. Although Dennis had not pitched well in his last three starts, he had shown his ability in several early season starts. Most notably against Florida State and South Carolina, two of the top opponents Auburn had seen this season. That alone gave Slater the confidence to give Dennis another opportunity.
"Chris Dennis, when healthy, and he was healthy today, showed that he can give us a five solid inning outing just about every time out," Slater said. "You guys asked me a lot of questions about this week ‘are you still going to stick with him?' I said yes because the ball was coming out of his hand like it did when he was healthy. That's what I saw, I saw the ball coming out of his hand the right way."
Things didn't get off to a great start for Dennis as Jeffrey Rea singled to open the game and advanced to second on a passed ball. After moving to third on a groundout Rea watched big hitting Thomas Berkery earn a walk to put runners on the corners.
Looking like he might get out of the inning, Dennis struck out Mitch Moreland to bring Saturday's hitting star Brian LaNinfa to the plate. Dennis quickly got two strikes on the big first baseman and that put Berkery in motion. Running on the pitch he drew a throw to second from Josh Donaldson. The throw bounced into center field allowing Rea to score the game's first run.
Luke Greinke pitched the ninth inning in Sunday's win.
Auburn answered in the bottom of the first thanks to the power of big hitting freshman Mike Bianucci. With two outs and nobody on Bianucci was looking for a pitch to hit against Mississippi State starter John Lalor. Getting behind 1-2 in the count, Bianucci golfed a breaking ball over the monster in left to tie the game at one. The Tigers would take the lead in the bottom of the second on a Justin Bristow sacrifice fly that scored Andy Bennett from third after he reached on a single to open the inning.
The Bulldogs got the run back in the fourth on a Butts single that scored Moreland from second, but once again Auburn would come back with a run to take back the lead in the bottom of the inning. With one out Greinke reached on an error by the third baseman. He quickly stole second and scored moments later on a Russell Dixon double to left. Although Dixon was thrown out trying to stretch the hit into a triple, the table was set for the Tigers to take over the game in the fifth.
The Tigers added to their advantage in the bottom of the fifth inning thanks to some uncharacteristically shaky defense by the Bulldogs.
With one out Boutwell reached on a walk to get things going for the Auburn offense. Bianucci followed and was hit by a pitch to bring struggling Donaldson to the plate. Looking to catch the defense off guard, Donaldson put down a perfect bunt to reach first safely and load the bases for Bennett. Bennett laced a ground ball that second baseman Rea fielded. He ran for the bag at second for the first out and turned to throw to first to complete the double play. His throw was wide at first however and the error allowed both Boutwell and Bianucci to score and make it 5-2 Tigers.
With Wiggins shutting down the Bulldogs on the mound, Auburn went back to work in the bottom of the seventh looking to put the game away for good. Leading off the inning Boutwell singled to right, but was erased on a force out at second by the right fielder after he dropped a Bianucci pop up. The Tigers then did a little hit-and-run as Donaldson ripped a grounder through the legs of Brian LaNinfa. The error allowed the runners to advance to second and third with just one out.
Auburn took advantage of the opportunity as leading RBI producer Bennett singled to center to score both Bianucci and Donaldson to push the lead to 7-2. Greinke followed with a bunt single, but that would be it for the inning as the Bulldogs as Dixon and Bristow both ground out to end the inning with the Tigers up five.
Wiggins pitched a scoreless eighth and Greinke came on to allow an unearned run in the ninth to make the final 7-3. Dennis said the victory was a big one for his team and showed the maturity of this young club bouncing back from Saturday's defeat.
"You can see it in our hitters, our approaches are great," Dennis said. "We put up 25, 26, 27 runs this weekend and that's big because their staff is pretty good. We still have some games where we kind of get out of it like last night, but that shows you right there going from last night to today, making that kind of improvement is big. That's something you don't see out of a young team a lot. A lot of young teams will kind of fold up and kind of go away, but we bounced back today. That was huge."
Auburn had 11 hits on the day with Bennett, Greinke and Dixon each having two. Bennett's three RBI led the way and pushes his team leading total to 40 for the year. On the mound Wiggins had his best outing of the season, allowing just two hits and no runs in three innings of work. Greinke came on to pitch the ninth and gave up one hit and one unearned run. Lalor took the loss for the Bulldogs, giving up eight hits and five runs in six innings of work.
With the victory Auburn improves to 6-9 in the SEC and is tied with LSU for fifth in the Western Division standings. Alabama leads the way at 10-5 with Arkansas next at 8-7 followed by Mississippi State at 7-7 and Ole Miss at 7-8. In the East South Carolina leads the pack at 11-4 followed by Vanderbilt (10-5), Kentucky (8-7), Georgia (6-9), Tennessee (5-9) and Florida (5-10).