Starkville, Miss.--Mississippi State outfielder Andy Rice hit a two-out, walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning as the Bulldogs defeated the Auburn Tigers 9-5 Sunday afternoon to complete the series sweep at Dudy Noble Field.
With the loss Auburn falls a full four games behind eighth-place Alabama with just six conference games left and effectively all but ends the Tigers' hopes of getting to the SEC Tournament. The Tigers fall to 28-22 overall and 7-17 in SEC play while Mississippi State improves to 31-12, 13-9 in conference action and just one and half games behind Arkansas for first place in the West.
"I thought we played well in every phase of the game," Auburn Coach Tommy Slater says. "We played pretty good offense today. We obviously played good defense with no errors. Bryan (Woodall) gave us a very solid starting effort and Brett (Butts) was solid out of the pen. The kids really showed a lot of perseverance and came out and played the game the right way today."
The loss spoiled a good pitching day for Auburn starter Bryan Woodall. In a starting role once again, the sophomore allowed eight hits, but just two earned runs in five innings of work. Slater says just like his team, Woodall deserved better for his performance against one of the top hitting teams in the league.
Offensively, the Tigers did a good job of putting the ball in play as they struck out just seven times in the game and collected 12 hits against Bulldog pitching. The strength of the order came in the middle as freshman Ross Smith and senior Andy Bennett both collected three hits and accounted for three of Auburn's five runs batted in on the day. Slater says it was just one of those days when his team couldn't get the big hit to break things open and it came back to haunt them.
"Andy really battled his tail off at the plate," Slater says. "I'm very proud of him. He fouled a lot of pitches off. I think we hit and ran with him once with him doing a nice job on that. Just all around, it was a really solid job by Andy.
"Ross was really solid at the plate today. Joseph (Sanders) smoked some balls. Donny (Josh Donaldson) hit the ball hard. Every at bat Donaldson had was a smoked ball somewhere. Up and down the lineup I thought we were pretty solid for the most part."
On a day when all the little things had gone wrong for the Tigers and seemed to work perfectly for the Bulldogs, Auburn finally got some good fortune in the top of the eighth inning and used it to tie the game at five. Trailing by two heading into the eighth, Auburn was looking for some good fortune and got just that as Josh Donaldson walked to get things going and quickly stole second to move into scoring position for Joseph Sanders. Continuing what has been a very good year at the plate, the true freshman drilled a double to left field to easily score Donaldson and bring the Tigers to within one.
That was just the start of an inning that saw the Tigers miss a golden opportunity to break the game open against the Bulldogs. Following a strikeout by Robert Brooks, Ross Smith singled to right field to give the Tigers runners on first and third with just one out. Then it was time for Auburn's good fortune to finally show through. At the plate trying to continue a hot day swinging the bat, Bennett blooped a single just into no-man's land in right field to score Sanders and tie the game at five. With nobody covering second base, Bennett smartly coasted into second to give the Tigers two in scoring position with still just one out. Unfortunately for the Tigers, that's where the rally would end as Justin Bristow and pinch hitter Mike Bianucci both struck out to leave the go-ahead run stranded at third.
In the ninth Auburn would again have a chance to take the lead back as a two-out double by Donaldson against Bulldog reliever Aaron Weatherford gave the Tigers a chance, but Sanders' sharp liner was snared by Mark Goforth in center field to end the threat and set the stage for Rice's heroics in the ninth.
In a different twist for the Tigers, on Sunday they actually got the lead to start the game as a single by Brooks and a double by Smith pushed across the first run of the game in the top of the second. With Woodall struggling but escaping on the mound, Auburn came back for more in the top of the fourth. Leading things off, Sanders walked and moved around to third on a ground ball by Brooks and a fly ball by Smith. It was then Bennett time as his single to right scored Sanders to put Auburn up 2-0.
The lead would extend to three in the fifth as the Tigers had a chance at more but came up just short. Leading off, Eric Skinner singled to left field to put the Auburn offense in business and moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by Bruce Edwards. That set the table for Luke Greinke and the sophomore delivered with a single up the middle.
Leading 3-0, Auburn appeared to be ready to go up by five as Donaldson blasted a ball to left field, but it came up just short and was caught at the wall. A Sanders fly ball ended the Auburn threat with the Tigers up three but Mississippi State would answer back in the bottom of the inning against Woodall.
Leading off the inning, Mark Goforth worked a walk from Woodall to begin a tough inning for the sophomore starter. Up next, Jeffrey Rea singled to left field to give the Bulldogs runners on first and second with nobody out. Facing Edward Easley one out later, Woodall proceeded to throw two wild pitches that pushed Goforth across and left Rea on third with one out. Easley quickly pushed him across with a single and just like that the Bulldogs cut the lead down to just one.
Auburn had a chance to extend the lead in the top of the sixth as Smith delivered a one-out single to get things going for the Tigers. With a good contact guy in Bennett at the plate, Auburn put on the hit and run and the senior singled to send Smith to third with still just one out. Bristow was up next and the sophomore lifted a fly ball into center field that Smith thought was deep enough to score on, but he thought wrong. Smith was thrown out at the plate to end the Auburn threat and give Mississippi State life heading to the bottom of the sixth.
With reliever Chris Dennis on in relief, Powers walked with one out and advanced to second on a wild pitch. An infield single then gave MSU runners on the corners with still just one out. That was it for Dennis as Butts came on and immediately got Goforth on a ground ball back to the mound for out number two but back-to-back singles by Rea and Butler tied the game at five and set the stage for a dramatic victory by the Bulldogs in the ninth to seal the sweep.
Auburn gets back in action Friday night as the Tigers take on the top-ranked Vanderbilt Commodores in the first of a three-game series at Plainsman Park. Game times for the weekend series are 6 p.m. on Friday, 2 p.m. on Saturday and 1:30 Sunday afternoon.