Mobile, Ala.--It was a good day at home for Auburn junior and Mobile native Josh Donaldson as he had three hits, including his fourth home run, and three RBI as the Tigers defeated Michigan State 11-6 to improve to 9-1 on the season.
Starting pitcher Paul Burnside picked up his third win of the season after giving up six hits and three earned runs in five and two/thirds innings of work but this day was all about Donaldson. Coach Tommy Slater says that Donaldson's play was a driving force behind his team's victory on Saturday.
"Donny has been doing a great job for us all season long," Slater says. "He's having great approaches at the plate and swinging the bat very well. He had a big home run early to give us the lead and then he had the big double late to extend the lead. I'm really proud of Josh. He's playing very hard, he's got a great team-first approach and his bats have been competitive every day."
The victory wasn't a beautiful one as the Tigers had just 10 hits against three Michigan State pitchers and committed two errors on defense but Auburn took advantage of a very shaky Spartan defense to get the job done. Slater says Saturday was one of those games where his team found a way to win despite not playing its best.
"We hit a lot of balls hard tonight," Slater says. "We hit a lot of line drives and hard ground balls. They haven't been outside a lot and the speed of the game caught up with them a little bit tonight. That's a good Michigan State club, they are going to win some games. I really like the way they swung the bat. Our kids played hard and got after it and we put pressure on them by taking a hard ground ball/line drive approach."
For Burnside it was another step in his development as a starting pitcher. After having Tommy John surgery while in high school in Montgomery, Burnside started his Auburn career in the bullpen last season before getting just a few starts under his belt. Now a full-time starter, Slater says Burnside is improving with every outing.
"Paul was very good tonight," Slater says. "They hit his fastball just a little bit but he mixed in some sliders as he went along. I thought Paul did a good job. We have a lot of confidence in Paul and all of our starters. He did a good job and the thing that is nice is that he's got a year under his belt now. Giving up a few hits and a home run don't faze him at all."
Burnside is 3-0 on the season and gave up his first earned runs of the year in Saturday's win.
Auburn got off to a good start at the plate against the Spartans as Donaldson evened up the home run race with teammate Mike Bianucci with a first inning bomb off Michigan State starter Jon Kibler. The blast put the Tigers up 1-0 and staked Burnside to the early lead. The lead wouldn't last long as Michigan State catcher Sean Walker answered Donaldson's home run with a long blast of his own. Tied at one, the Tigers would answer back in the second thanks to some help from the Spartans.
With one out in the second, freshman Ross Smith reached on an infield single and one out later he moved to second on Eric Skinner's fielder's choice. Facing the number nine man in Auburn's order, Kibler committed the ultimate sin for a pitcher and walked him to load the bases for center fielder Bruce Edwards. If his first mistake wasn't bad enough then Kibler trumped himself by walked Edwards to push across Smith and make it 2-1 Tigers.
Michigan State would again tie the score in the top of the third before Auburn broke the game open in the bottom of the inning. Leading things off, Donaldson singled up the middle to put the Tigers in business but he was quickly erased on a fielder's choice off the bat of Bianucci. The Spartan defense would begin to fall apart as a ground ball from Ryan Stanley got by both the shortstop and center fielder to put runners on second and third with still just one out.
Smith would again get the job done as he hit a ground ball to the right side to push across Bianucci and put Auburn back in front. Fellow freshman Joseph Sanders then ripped a double to score Stanley and put another runner in scoring position. Yet another error by Michigan State contributed to the Tigers making it 5-2 as Skinner reached on an error by the shortstop to score Sanders and give Burnside a commanding lead.
Auburn would add another run in the bottom of the fifth after the Spartans scored a single run as a two-out walk to Donaldson spelled trouble for Michigan State as back-to-back singles by Bianucci and Stanley scored Donaldson to give the Tigers a four-run advantage. In the fifth a Chris Roberts leadoff double led to a run for the Spartans but again Auburn would answer as Sanders reached on an error and scored on yet another MSU error after moving to second on a sacrifice bunt by Skinner.
With Butts cruising on the mound after coming on to relieve Burnside in the sixth, the Tigers put the game away for good in the seventh. Leading off, Skinner ripped a double off the left field wall off MSU reliever Mike Monterev. Moving to second on a sacrifice bunt by Stringer, it looked as if Skinner was going to be stranded as Edwards couldn't push him across with a ground ball to short with the infield in. Fortunately for the Tigers Donaldson was waiting in the wings as freshman Robert Brooks was hit by a pitch to bring the Mobile native to the plate. Getting a pitch to drive, Donaldson ripped it into left field for a double. The hit scored both Skinner and Brooks to make it 9-2 Tigers. Bianucci followed with a shallow pop up that first baseman Evan Friedland misplayed. Donaldson scored on the play to put Auburn up 10-3 heading to the eighth inning.
Michigan State would make things interesting as Butts struggled in the eighth. Brandon Doherty got things going with a single and Eric Roof followed with a single as well to give the Spartans a runner in scoring position with nobody out. A wild pitch from Butts moved both runners up, allowing a Kyle Day ground ball to score Doherty. Following a strikeout, Friedland reached on an infield single to score the second run of the inning for Michigan State. A walk would be the end of the day for Butts as Greinke came on. The sophomore would give up a RBI single but that would be the end of the threat as Auburn went to the ninth leading 10-6.
Auburn would add an insurance run in the ninth as Smith doubled to start the inning and moved to second on a walk to pinch hitter Andy Bennett. Following a sacrifice bunt by Skinner, Stringer walked to load the bases for Edwards. That's when the drama would ensue as Edwards lifted a fly ball to center field that easily scored Smith from third but the Spartans threw to second to say Bennett left the base early. Bennett was ruled out and at first the run was taken off the board but just before the top of the ninth inning began the run was added to give Auburn the 11-6 lead.
Greinke finished off the Spartans in the ninth to give Auburn the victory. At the plate the Tigers were led by Donaldson and Smith with three hits apiece. Donaldson added three RBI to push his team-leading total to 17. In his first start, Sanders added a double and scored twice. Roberts led the way for MSU with three hits while Doherty added two singles. The accounted for half of the Spartans' 10 hits.
Auburn will return to action Sunday afternoon at 2:30 when the Tigers face host South Alabama in the final game of the Coca-Cola Classic. South Alabama dropped Saturday's game 14-4 to Jacksonville, leaving Auburn as the only undefeated team with one game left for all four teams.