Auburn, Ala.--Josh Donaldson's walk-off, two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth capped a five-run inning for the Auburn Tigers (18-3) as they came from behind to defeat VMI 10-8 Wednesday afternoon at Plainsman Park. Trailing by as many as six runs on the day, Auburn used a big day from freshmen Dustin Spruill and Joseph Sanders to break even in the two-game series versus the Keydets (13-4) and head into SEC play on a high note once again.
Struggling without much life on the field or in the dugout, Auburn's Tommy Slater juggled the lineup several times during Wednesday's game looking for the right combination. One of the right fits came behind the plate as Spruill got the start and came up with four hits on the day. Sanders, a replacement for an injured Ben Jones, came up with two big doubles late to jump start Auburn's stagnant offense. Slater says he was looking for some fire from his team all day and it finally came from Donaldson in the seventh inning. Although he made an out on the play, Slater says Donaldson's actions inspired him to give a talk to the team that wound up energizing them on the way to the win.
"We had a couple of talks," Slater says. "The turning point in the game for me quite honestly was in the sixth inning, Donaldson's line out to right field. At the time we're down 8-2 and he gets a pitch up and in. He reacted back and he was mad at himself because he didn't let it hit him. He was mad and then they dust him. He puts his bat between his legs and claps his hands, I think it really shows his maturity. What he ends up doing is he smokes the ball to right field. I brought the team up in the seventh and said ‘guys, Josh Donaldson is a baseball player. That was a great at-bat right there…we're down and hard playing baseball players are what wins games. Let's see if we can win these last three innings'. The guys did a nice job of that."
A fiery coach and competitor, Slater never has a problem stating what is on his mind and that was the case again on Wednesday. Not happy with his team's performance, Slater says he had an earlier meeting on the day to try to get the attention of his team. Although they finally came to life and got the win, he says this team didn't have the same fire they had shown to this point and it almost cost them a victory.
"It would have stunk to lose but the bottom line is that I was very displeased with our energy," Slater says. "We played with so little energy today. I told them earlier in the game when I brought them up, that they were getting out-energied and outplayed and not out-talented. We have more talent than they do. I told them ‘you've gotten to 17 wins not by just saying we're Auburn and walking on the field thinking we can beat everybody. You've gotten to 17 wins with heart and desire every single day'. I didn't think for the first six innings that we did that today. We had individuals do it but not as a team."
Trailing 8-5 going to the ninth, Auburn's job was simple on Wednesday. They had to score at least three runs to extend the game and four to win it. The only problem was the opposing pitcher was the nation's top save man Kevin Crum. With 10 saves on the season to this point, Crum has been dominant and showed that in Tuesday's VMI win over Auburn. Donaldson says that this time around the Tigers felt like they had something for the hard-throwing righty.
"Yesterday, after my at-bat, I wished I had my at-bat over because I thought our guys were seeing him well," Donaldson says. "We had some good at-bats off him. We showed that today. He might have been a little bit tired because he has been throwing almost every game for them. It's about time for him to blow one of those saves."
Josh Donaldson is mobbed by his teammates at the plate following his ninth inning bomb.
With one out in the bottom of the ninth, Spruill drilled a double to right field to get things going for the Tigers. Another insertion into the lineup, Phillip Stringer at shortstop, then drew a huge walk to bring the tying run to the plate in Luke Greinke. Getting a pitch to drive, Greinke ripped it into the game in right field to score Spruill from second. A wild pitch then moved both runners up into scoring position for Sanders.
Looking for a pitch to drive, Sanders tattooed the ball to left field for his second double of the game. The hit scored both runs to tie the game and bring Donaldson to the plate. With pinch runner Bruce Edwards now on second, VMI decided to replace their star closer with left fielder Jacoby Fields to face Donaldson. With Mike Bianucci on deck hitless on the day at 0-5 with four strikeouts, the Keydets decided to pitch to Donaldson. It would prove to be a huge mistake as he worked the count full before jumping on a breaking ball and blasting it over the wall in left field for the game winner. It was Donaldson's eighth home run of the year and RBI's number 31 and 32 for Donaldson. He says that although Bianucci is an imposing threat behind him and he understands why he was pitched to, it still gave him a little charge to get challenged.
"Nuc is a great hitter and you can't expect anybody to pitch around me," Donaldson says. "He's put up great numbers his whole career here. You can't expect anybody to pitch around me to get to him but it was in the back of my head. You never know but I'm glad they pitched to me."
The Tigers got on the board first against talented VMI starter Michael Bowman in the top of the second inning. Leading things off, Andy Bennett singled to left field but was quickly cut down as Ross Smith hit into a 4-6-3 double play. Auburn wouldn't quit in this inning though as Spruill singled to start a two-out rally for the Tigers. Eric Skinner followed with a single of his own before leadoff man Greinke was hit by a pitch to load the bases for Jones. Hustling down the line, Ben Jones beat out a ground ball to short for his second hit of the day as Auburn took the early lead.
It would be short-lived on this day as the Keydets came back to tie things in the top of the third against Auburn starter Austin Hubbard. Leading off, Thane Smith doubled to put VMI in business. They proceeded execute small-ball to perfection to push him across as back-to-back ground balls to Brooks at second scored Smith to tie the game at one.
Auburn came back to grab the lead in the bottom of the inning as a Brooks one-out walk gave the Tigers some life against VMI reliever Chris Henderson. Bennett's second single of the game was good enough to move Brooks all the way to third where he would score moments later on a Smith groundout to second. Now ahead 2-1, Auburn was looking good but things would fall apart quickly as the Keydets were out to prove they belong in the Top 30.
Starting the fourth inning with the lead, Hubbard gave up a leadoff single to Fields to start things but rebounded by getting Michael Roberts to pop up to Brooks at second for the first out of the inning. Hitting just .156 coming into the game, Tanner Biagini followed with a single to left that gave the Keydets a runner in scoring position with one out. That was the end of the day for Hubbard as Blake came on but quickly was the recipient of the first of several unfortunate bounces for the Tigers.
Austin Hubbard allowed three runs on six hits in three and one/third innings on Wednesday.
Facing Chad Rice, Auburn's Josh Blake made a good pitch that the shortstop fought off in self defense. The result was a high chopper that bounced over the head of Donaldson at third base for a double. Fields scored on the hit to once again tie the game and give the Keydets a pair of runners in scoring position. Blake followed by hitting Smith with a pitch to load the bases for A.J. Yoder. The second baseman lifted a fly ball to center field that easily scored Biagini and put VMI back in front. On the play Rice moved to third and that would prove to be important as a passed ball charged to Spruill allowed Rice to score and put VMI up 4-2.
Unfortunately for Auburn the breaks would continue to bounce VMI's way as they used them to break open the game in the top of the sixth. With Thompson on in relief, the Tigers got Biagini on a ground ball to start the inning but Rice reached on an error by Skinner that opened the floodgates for the Keydets. A perfect bunt single by Smith followed that was just in the right spot between Thompson and Bennett. With runners on first and second, VMI's Yoder fisted a single just over the head of Donaldson to load the bases. A Crumpler single to right followed to drive in the first run of the inning before Eddie Van Es drove home two with a double to right field. The final run of the frame came on a sacrifice fly off the bat of Ryan Litz. Now with a commanding 8-2 advantage, the Keydets turned to Henderson to take them home.
He would last through the sixth and into the seventh before Auburn would finally get to him. Leading off the inning, Bianucci reached second as his fly ball to left field was dropped by Fields for an error. A single by Brooks gave the Tigers runners on the corners with nobody out. A Bennett fly ball to left wasn't deep enough advance either runner, putting Josh Stapleton on the spot. Inserted into left field after Smith failed to run out a play an inning earlier, Stapleton hit a sharp ground ball to short but beat the throw to first to allow Bianucci to score. A sharp single by Spruill to right field advanced Stapleton to third and brought an end to Henderson's day as Corey Bachman came on in relief. He promptly gave up a bunt single to Phillip Stringer that scored Brooks to cut the lead down to four.
Now trailing 8-4, Chris Dennis came on in the eighth and pitched a scoreless inning of relief. VMI brought on Crum to start the bottom of the eighth and the Tigers were able to score a single run on a wild pitch to cut the lead down to three. The eighth set the stage for a dramatic ninth inning victory for the Tigers after fellow reliever Scott Shuman pitched a scoreless top of the ninth inning. Nobody could have guessed that would be enough to pick up his fourth win of the season thanks to a sleepwalking offense that came to life at just the right time.
Auburn returns to action this weekend as the Tigers travel to Athens to face the Georgia Bulldogs in the SEC opener for both schools. Georgia comes into the weekend with a record of 5-11 after dropping a 3-1 decision Tuesday night against Western Carolina.