Auburn, Ala.--VMI entered Tuesday night's contest with a seven-game winning streak and they left Plainsman Park with it still intact as a three-run eighth inning spurred the Keydets (13-3) to a 7-3 comeback victory over the Auburn Tigers (17-3) in a matchup of ranked teams. Two of the hottest teams in the county coming into the game, 10th-ranked Auburn managed just four hits and none after the fourth inning as three VMI pitchers shut down Auburn's offense on the way to victory.
Auburn's regular mid-week starter this season, true freshman Taylor Thompson was again solid for the Tigers as he went five and one/third innings and allowed two earned runs on four hits while striking out seven. Unlike most games this season, it was the bullpen that had problems for the Tigers on this night as relievers Justin Bristow and Luke Greinke gave up a combined five runs in the last two innings to hurt Auburn's chances for the win. Coach Tommy Slater says as solid as his bullpen has been all season there is a first time for everything.
"It was the first time all year," Slater says. "We had been so good on the mound and so good in the bullpen. We just had a rough eighth inning. That's the bottom line. Obviously in the ninth, that wasn't real good either. I want to give a lot of credit to VMI. Their kids played hard. After Justin rolled through the seventh they figured him out a little bit in the eighth. The bottom line is their kids played hard."
Slater says that some nights you just get outplayed and Tuesday night that was the case for his team as VMI made the plays it took to get the victory behind a superb bullpen performance from Keydet relievers Ian Casher, Corey Bachman and Kevin Crum. In seven innings they allowed just two Auburn hits and one run to eventually secure the victory for VMI. Slater says they were the difference on this night.
"I think you have to give a lot of credit to VMI's bullpen," Slater says. "I thought Casher did a nice job in the middle innings, the third, fourth and fifth. Their shortstop (Chad) Rice made some really nice plays to get them out of some innings when we hit some balls pretty hard that would have scored runs. Credit their bullpen. Casher was real good and then Crump comes in to get his 10th save. I thought they did a nice job."
Auburn got on the board first against the Keydets as they took advantage of two mistakes by VMI to take the early lead. Leading off the inning, Mike Bianucci singled to left field to bring Robert Brooks to the plate. Hitting the ball hard, Brooks' fly ball to right field wasn't deep enough to advance Bianucci to second. The inning appeared to be over with as Andy Bennett's ground ball to second was a tailor-made double-play ball but A.J. Yoder lost control of the ball allowing both runners to be safe. Auburn then put the runners in motion and it proved to be the right move as catcher Michael Roberts' throw sailed into left field to score Bianucci and move Bennett to third. He would score moments later as freshman Ross Smith singled to left to make it 2-0 Tigers.
Mike Bianucci had one hit and scored two of Auburn's three runs on the night.
Thompson cruised through the first five innings without much trouble until VMI finally got to the freshman in the sixth. Leading off, Yoder reached on a walk but was quickly picked off first base by an alert Josh Donaldson behind the plate. That proved to be a huge play as Robert Crumpler followed with an infield single off the glove of Joseph Sanders at third base. Right fielder Eddie Van Es then tied the game with a long home run into the VMI bullpen in right field. A walk by Thompson was the end of the line for him as Johnny Thompson came on to shut down the Keydets and finish out the inning. Back to square one, Auburn would come back to take the lead in the bottom of the sixth.
Once again it was Bianucci that set the tone for the Tigers as he reached on a walk to start the sixth against VMI reliever Ian Casher. Coming on to replace starter Trey Barham in the third, Casher had shut down the Tigers since coming into the game but his leadoff walk to Bianucci would be the start of the end for him on this night as a perfect sacrifice bunt by Brooks moved Bianucci into scoring position. That was the end of the line for Casher as Corey Bachman came on and promptly balked Bianucci to third. Bennett then executed perfectly as his fly ball to center scored Bianucci from third to put Auburn back in front.
That's the way things would remain until the eighth when VMI put the hammer down on the Tigers with a three-run inning. Facing Bristow, who came on to start the seventh, the Keydets got things started right away as Yoder singled to center field to put VMI in business. Crumpler was up next and his ground ball deep into the hole at shortstop was one that Auburn's Eric Skinner should have fielded and held onto. Instead, he tried to throw to second but his throw went into right field to move the tying run all the way to third with nobody out.
The game would be tied moments later as a Bristow wild pitch scored pinch runner David Lottman to tie the score at three each and move Crumpler to second. From there he would cruise home as Van Es again was the man of the hour as he tripled to center field just out of the reach of a diving Smith in center field. Pinch hitter Brian Sandridge would put the finishing touches on the inning with a double over the head of Smith in center to score Van Es and give VMI the 5-3 lead.
The Keydets put the game out of reach in the ninth as, pitching for the first time since a Feb. 24th outing against Michigan State, Greinke was understandably rusty and it showed. With one out he gave up a single to Chad Rice who quickly stole second. After moving to third on a ground ball to Bennett at first, Rice and pinch hitter Justin Hess, who reached after being hit by a pitch, scored on a Crumpler double to left. That would be all she wrote on this night as Kevin Crum finished off Auburn in the ninth to earn his nation-leading 10th save of the season.
The two teams will meet again Tuesday afternoon at 3 p.m. with freshman Austin Hubbard on the mound for the Tigers against sophomore Michael Bowman from VMI. This season Hubbard is 0-0 with a 6.00 ERA while Bowman is 3-0 with a 1.32 ERA.