Taking the loss for the Tigers was reliever Johnny Thompson. Pitching two and two/thirds innings of scoreless relief, Thompson left a fastball over the plate to Salem in the ninth and he deposited it over the short wall in right field to end the game. Thompson said that he didn't make a bad pitch but sometimes the hitter is just better on a given night.
"He got hold of a fastball," Thompson said. "He just ripped it. It was a good swing and he's a good hitter. It's just one of those things that happens. He's just a good hitter. It's hard to get some guys out and he's one of them. We're going to do our best with him and hopefully do a little better the next two games."
The loss spoils another terrific outing for the Tigers on the mound. After a three-run first inning Alabama scored just twice in the next eight innings off starter Brett Butts and relievers Paul Burnside and Thompson before Salem's game winner. Coach Tommy Slater said the outing was just fantastic following the tough first inning.
"It was a rough first for Brett," Slater said. "It's not just the walks but he didn't locate his pitches very well and they hammered him. He settled in after that and was able to give us a few innings. Burnside was really good once again. Paul comes into the game with runners on scoring position and settles things down. He pitches well for us and gave us everything he had. They really battled him tough in the seventh. Even though they didn't get hits they put pitches in him and that was it for Paul. Johnny Thompson was really good. He made one mistake and credit Salem for doing what you do when you make a mistake."
It didn't take long for Alabama to get to Butts as right away the Crimson Tide struck for three runs. Leading off the bottom of the first, Emeel Salem singled up the middle to bring third baseman Matt Downs to the plate. Getting a fastball out over the plate, Downs drove it over the short porch in right field for his fifth home run of the season. A walk to designated hitter Alex Avila then put the Crimson Tide back in business. Following a fly ball out for the first out of the inning a single by Evan Bush scored Avila after he moved to second on a wild pitch. Just like that Alabama led 3-0.
With LeBlanc cruising through the first two innings it looked like a long night for the Tigers, but the offense would come untracked in the third against the dominating lefty. Leading things off, designated hitter Bruce Edwards singled to right field. Tyler Johnstone then followed suit with a bloop single to right field that put a runner in scoring position with nobody out for Luke Greinke. Auburn's top bunter this season, the freshman failed to get one down and wound up popping up for the first out of the inning.
Already with one hit on the day, first baseman Andy Bennett fouled off several pitches before ripping a single to right field to load the bases with one out. The first run of the inning would come on a Josh Donaldson ground ball that scored Edwards from third. Right fielder Russell Dixon then got down 0-2 to LeBlanc before ripping a pitch the opposite way for a double. The hit scored both Johnstone and Bennett to tie the game at three.
Bennett singles off LeBlanc.
Alabama took the lead back in the bottom of the third as a two-out rally produced the fourth run of the contest for the Crimson Tide. With nobody on and two outs right fielder Ryan Rhoden singled to right field off Butts to bring former Alabama quarterback Spencer Pennington to the plate. Getting a pitch to pull, Pennington ripped a double just inside the bag at first. Rhoden came all the way around to score on the play to give Alabama back the lead.
They would extend the lead in the next inning as shortstop Greg Paiml struck out but reached on a wild pitch to lead things off. That would prove to be huge as Salem singled on a 0-2 pitch to follow. With Downs coming to the plate that would be it for Butts as Burnside came on. He walked Downs to bring Avila to the plate with the bases loaded. The DH did his job with a sacrifice fly. Another walk loaded the bases before Burnside got Bush on a strikeout for out number two. Then he coaxed Rhoden to ground out deep to Johnstone. Burnside covered first and got a perfect strike from Johnstone to end the inning with Alabama up 5-3.
Auburn came back to tie the game in the sixth as Donaldson led off against LeBlanc with a solo home run to left field. The blast was his eighth of the season and brought the Tigers to within a run. Dixon then almost tied the game on one swing with a fly ball that hit off the right field wall. Dixon cruised into second for a double. After advancing to third on a ground ball by Boutwell, Dixon would score on a strange play.
Facing freshman Justin Bristow, LeBlanc got what he wanted as he struck him out for the second out of the inning. That's when the problems occurred for LeBlanc and the Crimson Tide. Catcher Kody Valverde lobbed the ball back to him on the mound. A little high, LeBlanc nonchalantly put his glove up to catch the ball. The ball bounced off his glove behind the mound. It was just far enough away that Dixon was able to score and tie the game at five.
Auburn missed a golden opportunity to pull ahead in the top of the seventh as a leadoff walk to Johnstone was the end of the road for LeBlanc after he had thrown 120 pitches. Facing reliever David Robertson, Greinke put down a perfect sacrifice to move the runner to second. Bennett then walked to bring Donaldson back to the plate. Trying to catch the defense off guard, Donaldson popped up a bunt to third for out number two. Dixon was then hit by a pitch to load the bases for Boutwell, who struck out looking to end the threat.
The relievers would continue to dominate the late innings as both teams remained scoreless into the ninth with Robertson striking out the side for the Tigers in the top of the eighth. Auburn's Johnny Thompson came on to get the Crimson Tide, giving up just a two out double to Avila. He was left stranded on a groundout by Valverde to end the inning.
Things would remain that way until Salem's blast put an end to an epic Friday night struggle in the SEC. The one bright spot was Auburn's ability to get to LeBlanc. Coming in undefeated, the Tigers roughed him up for seven hits and five runs in just six innings. The junior threw 120 pitches and struck out seven. The Tigers also got some pitches into Alabama's closer as Robertson threw 61 pitches in four innings of work. Bennett and Dixon led the way for Auburn at the plate with two hits each while Salem's three hits paced the Crimson Tide.
The two teams resume the series Saturday night at six as Auburn's Evan Crawford takes the mound against Bernard Robert for the Crimson Tide. The game can be seen on Comcast Sports Southeast.