Auburn, Ala.--A Luke Greinke sacrifice fly scored pinch-runner Ross Smith with the eventual game-winner in the bottom of the eighth inning and pitchers Chris Dennis and Justin Bristow closed the door on the Sun Devils in the ninth as the #23 Auburn Tigers (13-2) defeated number 10 Arizona State 7-6 Sunday afternoon to win the series. Coach Tommy Slater says the win is a huge one for his club after the way things turned out last season at ASU when the Tigers were swept in three ugly games.
"It was a good weekend against a great Arizona State team," Slater says. "That is as good of an offensive club as I think we'll see all year. They are so fundamentally sound with everything they do on offense. We designed the schedule on purpose to get progressively harder as we go into league play. They are one of the best teams in the country and it prepares us to face the guys in our league.
"It was just a great team effort all weekend long," he adds. "We had a lot of different contributors on the mound. Our bullpen was outstanding all weekend long and there wasn't just one guy. It was a lot of guys. The only guy that pitched twice on the weekend was Bristow. Our bullpen really did a nice job all weekend long."
After a comeback victory on Saturday when the Tigers trailed 8-0 early, Sunday it was the other way around as Auburn led 4-1 but would have to survive a rally by Arizona State to hold on to the victory. Much like the rest of the season, Sunday's victory was mostly about the pitching by the Tigers and in particular the bullpen. After starter Evan Crawford struggled in three innings, allowing five hits and four earned runs, relievers Johnny Thompson, Dennis and Bristow allowed just four hits and one run in the final six innings to once again draw praise from Slater.
"If I have said it once I have said it a million times, the biggest difference in our club is the pitching," Slater says. "When you can pitch, whether it is in the beginning, the middle, or the end, we feel like we can do it in all three parts. When you can pitch your team always feels like it is going to win no matter what the score is…with the pitching we have we feel very confident every time we take the field."
While the pitching staff was the story of the game for the Tigers, the most important single contributor was likely senior center fielder Bruce Edwards. Struggling coming into the weekend, Edwards had three of Auburn's nine hits on the day and scored three runs as Auburn won one of the bigger series in recent memory. Edwards says the weekend was everything he had hoped for coming into the series.
"This weekend definitely felt like a SEC weekend," Edwards says. "It was a regional-type, playoff-type weekend. Coming into this series we just wanted to prove we could play with these guys and we could beat these guys. It was a great atmosphere to play in. We're just glad the fans came out to support us the way they did and we're looking to put up some more W's."
With the game tied at six, Auburn would take the lead in the eighth thanks to some good old-fashioned small ball and heads up play by the Tigers. Leading things off in the eighth, Mike Bianucci was hit by a pitch from Arizona State reliever Jason Mitchell to put the offense in motion. A Ben Jones sacrifice bunt moved Bianucci to second with just one out where he was replaced by the faster Smith with Greinke coming to the plate. The move proved to be timely for the Tigers as the alert Smith advanced to third on a wild pitch that bounced just a few feet away from Arizona State catcher Petey Paramore. Greinke then did his job by lifting a fly ball to right field that easily scored Smith to put Auburn ahead.
The Tigers took a one-run lead into the top of the ninth inning with Dennis looking to finish things off and earn the victory. Despite pitching well in his first two innings, Dennis committed one of the sins in baseball as he walked Rocky Laguna to start the inning and put the Sun Devils in business. Trying for a base hit instead of just sacrificing the runner over, leadoff man Andrew Romine popped up to Andy Bennett at first base for the first out of the inning. It proved to be a huge play as Brett Wallace followed with a single to left that likely would have scored the tying run. Instead Arizona State had runners on first and second with just one out.
That would be all for Dennis as Bristow came on to clean things up in the ninth and promptly threw a wild pitch to move both runners into scoring position. Playing the odds, Slater called for Bristow to walk Eric Sogard intentionally to load the bases and set up the force once again. Facing pinch-hitter Joe Persichina, Bristow coaxed him into a short pop up to Robert Brooks behind the first base bag for the second out. It was then a face off as Bristow needed to retire one of the nation's top players to secure the Auburn victory.
With the bases loaded and two outs, the dangerous Paramore stepped to the plate looking to end his day with a bang. Entering the contest hitting a robust .471, Paramore was 1-4 on the day with a RBI as he stepped in to face Bristow. In his second critical situation of the weekend and his first ever save opportunity, the sophomore got Paramore to line out to Edwards in center field for the final out. The play set off a wild celebration on the field as Auburn exacted revenge on the Sun Devils after being outscored 34-6 in a sweep at Arizona State last season.
Auburn junior Josh Donaldson gets a lead in front of ASU shortstop Andrew Romine. Donaldson hit his sixth home run of the year and also scored two runs in the contest.
Early on the Tigers looked as if they would win Sunday's game going away as they answered a first inning Arizona State run with two in the bottom of the inning. Leading off, Edwards singled up the middle and moved to second on a Josh Donaldson walk one out later. Following a Mike Bianucci fly ball to left for the second out, Ryan Stanley and Greinke worked back-to-back walks to push across Auburn's first run of the inning. Bennett followed with a single to left that scored Donaldson but Stanley was thrown out at the plate to end the inning with Auburn leading 2-1. After giving up a run in the first, Auburn starter Evan Crawford would settled down to pitch a scoreless second and give his offense the green light for more action in the bottom of the inning.
With one out, Eric Skinner singled to center field with Edwards up next. Ripping a sharp single into the gap, Edwards put Skinner in motion. Sensing it would be a tough play, Skinner rounded second heading for third. His aggressive play forced left fielder Raoul Torrez to sneak a peak. When he did the ball rolled under his glove allowing Edwards to advance to second. With runners now on second and third with was time for freshman Robert Brooks to come back to life as he singled just over the head of Sogard at second base to score both runs and put Auburn up 4-1.
Arizona State would not be bothered by the Auburn outburst as the Sun Devils answered back with four runs of their own in the top of the third. Leading off the inning, Jarrod Bogany tripled over the head of Bianucci in left field to begin the inning with a bang. Two walks and three hits later the Sun Devils led 5-4 as Crawford got the final out of the inning for his last work of the day.
Reliever Johnny Thompson came on to start the fourth inning for Auburn and promptly sat down the Sun Devils in order. With the confidence restored again with the Tiger bullpen in control, Auburn came back to take the lead in the bottom of the fourth with Edwards once again in the middle of things. Walking to lead off the inning, Edwards messed with pitcher Joey Parigi before he coaxed him into a throwing error to advance to second. The speedy Edwards then stole third and scored moments later on a wild pitch to tie the game. One out later Donaldson put Auburn back in front with his sixth home run of the season to left field.
Staked to a one-run lead, Thompson was bit by the two-out bug in the top of the fifth as back-to-back hits with two outs and nobody on brought the Sun Devils back even with the Tigers. After retiring both Kiel Roling and Paramore to start the inning, Thompson gave up a double to Ike Davis to bring Matt Hall to the plate. Getting behind 1-2, Thompson worked the count to even before he ripped a single to center field to score Davis and knot the score at six. That set the stage for Auburn's dramatic late-inning victory against the Sun Devils.
Auburn returns to action Tuesday night when the Tigers take on Davidson at Plainsman Park at 6 p.m. True freshman Taylor Thompson will get the start for the Tigers with fellow freshman Austin Hubbard and sophomore Luke Greinke also scheduled to see some action on the mound.