Big First Inning Dooms Tigers On Sunday

Looking for the sweep of rival Alabama, Auburn gave up nine first inning runs and never threatened in a 12-4 loss on Sunday.

Auburn, Ala.--Alabama scored nine runs in the first inning and never looked back behind the strong pitching of sophomore Tommy Hunter as Auburn couldn't finish off the sweep of the Crimson Tide, falling 12-4 on a beautiful Sunday afternoon at Plainsman Park.

With the chance to earn their first conference sweep of the season, Auburn instead got blown out early and falls to 27-16, 6-12 in SEC play.

With the win Alabama improves to 23-18, 8-10 in conference action. Alabama is currently in eighth place in the SEC standings with Auburn two games out of the race for Hoover with 12 games remaining in the regular season.

For the third consecutive week, the Justin Bristow experiment in the starting rotation turned out to be a disaster for the Tigers. In each of his first two Sunday starts, the sophomore failed to get the job done as he allowed five runs, three earned runs, in three and one/third innings against LSU in start number one. Last weekend the numbers were worse, giving up six earned runs in four and one/third innings.

Sunday was likely Bristow's final chance in the starting rotation after Alabama lit him up for eight earned runs in just two/thirds of an inning. In his three starts in conference play, Bristow has given up 17 earned runs and 20 runs overall in eight and one/third innings. Coach Tommy Slater says that pitching is always the key and on Sunday his starter didn't the job done making next Sunday's starter a question mark.

"Obviously, we didn't pitch well to start the game," Slater says. "It started with the first batter. You can't give up a nine-spot in the first inning and expect to win the ball game. I thought our kids played hard throughout the game. I thought they battled.

"It's about performance in athletics," he adds. "It always has been and always will be. We've got to re-evaluate that and it certainly will be evaluated this week."

On the other hand you have the performance of Hunter for Alabama. Bouncing back and forth between a starter and a closer this season, the big sophomore had a strong Sunday outing for the Crimson Tide as he pitched a complete game in picking up his fourth win of the season. In nine innings, Hunter allowed just four runs on nine hits while striking out four and walking one. Slater says as bad as the day was for his starter, Hunter was just as good for Alabama.

"I thought we had pretty good approaches at the plate against a very, very good pitcher for Alabama," Slater says. "Tommy was good. We weren't surprised at that, but I thought our kids did a nice job.

"Obviously, you get down 9-0 early and give up another three because of some shoddy defense in the third, but from that point on I thought our kids played well offensively."

On a day when Auburn had so much to gain, instead it was Alabama that took the bull by the horns early and never let up against the Tigers. It started in the first inning when the Crimson Tide knocked Bristow out of the game after he could muster just two outs.

Leading things off, Emeel Salem tripled into the right field corner to spell trouble for Bristow and the Tigers. Up next, Brandon Belcher blooped a single just over the head of Eric Skinner at short to score Salem and put Alabama on the board. Stealing second, Belcher would watch as Bristow walked Alex Avila to bring Kent Matthes to the plate. He also reached with a bloop single, this one scoring Belcher to make it 2-0.

Matt Bentley then put the Tigers into a bigger hole as he blasted a three-run homer into the bullpen in right field. That made it 5-0 Alabama, but the visitors were just getting started on this day and in this inning.

Finally getting the first out of the inning on a strikeout, Bristow hurt himself again with a walk to Jake Smith to bring Greg Paiml to the plate. Another bloop hit, this time a double, left Alabama with runners on second and third with still just one out and number nine hitter Kyle Moore coming to the plate. He continued the onslaught with a single that scored Smith from third.

Up for the second time in the inning, Salem ripped a ground rule double to right field to score another Alabama run. That was the end of the line for Bristow as Woodall came on and immediately gave up the final and most fitting blow on this day. Lining a pitch into right field, Belcher circled the bases as Auburn's Ross Smith dove for the ball only to come up empty. Center fielder Bruce Edwards tracked it down, but his throw back to the infield was off line. Belcher raced around to score on the play to give Alabama and Hunter a commanding 9-0 lead in the first inning.

Dominating the Tigers in the first two innings, Hunter was given even more of a cushion in the top of the third as Alabama tacked on three runs off Woodall to make it 12-0 Alabama.

Auburn finally got on the board in the bottom of the fourth as Josh Donaldson singled and worked his way around to third base before eventually scoring on a wild pitch. With Woodall settling in, Auburn got another single run in the fifth, but could have had more as Robert Brooks led things off with a double and got company on the bases when Ross Smith reached after being hit by a pitch.

One out later, Edwards singled to load the bases with just one out for Luke Greinke. His fly ball scored Brooks, but Donaldson couldn't make the Tide pay as he was retired to end the inning with the Tigers trailing 12-2.

Josh Donaldson had three hits for the Tigers on Sunday.

With reliever Evan Crawford on and pitching well for the Tigers, Auburn got two more in the bottom of the seventh and had a chance to get back in the game. Leading off the inning, Brooks worked a walk from Hunter to put the Tigers in business. After moving to second on a wild pitch, Brooks scored on a double by Smith to give Auburn its third run. A fly ball advanced Smith to third base and he would later score on an Edwards ground ball to short.

With the lead down to eight, Auburn was looking for more as Greinke extended his hitting streak to 18 games with a two-out single. A single by Donaldson followed, his third hit of the day, to bring Mike Bianucci to the plate. Looking to get Auburn back in the game with one swing, Bianucci drilled a long fly ball to center field, but Salem caught it on the warning track in front of the batter's eye to end the inning and the last threat for the Tigers.

The positives from Sunday's game came from Woodall and Crawford. Pitching the last eight and one/third innings for the Tigers, Woodall allowed just one earned run in three and one/third while Crawford had perhaps his best outing of the season as he gave up just two hits and struck out three while walking three. Slater says their outings make one of the two a likely choice to move back into the rotation next Sunday against Arkansas.

"I thought Bryan threw the ball well and we made a couple of errors behind that hurt us," Slater says. "I thought Evan threw the ball extremely well. Evan looked as good as Evan has looked this year."

At the plate, Brooks and Smith added two hits. With Donaldson's three hits that trio accounted for seven of the nine hits by Auburn. For Alabama, Belcher's three hits and four RBI led the way with Salem, Avila and Bentley all adding two hits.

Box Score

This week, the Tigers play their final non-conference game of the season when they face Troy on Wednesday night on the road in Troy. Next weekend, Auburn returns home to face fourth-ranked Arkansas in an SEC Western Division series. The Tigers face a must-win situation against the powerful Razorbacks, likely needing at least seven wins in their final 12 games to have a chance at the postseason.

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