Lexington, Ken.--True freshman Joseph Sanders grand slam in the fourth inning was the biggest blow of the night for the Auburn Tigers but it was just one of many as they pounded Kentucky pitching for 20 hits in an 18-7 win Thursday night at Cliff Hagan Field. The victory improves Auburn's record to 30-24 on the season and equals the total SEC wins for last season with nine. Kentucky falls to 33-18-1, 12-15-1 in conference action with the loss.
While starter Evan Crawford and reliever Josh Blake were solid for the Tigers, giving up seven runs on eight hits in nine innings, it was the offense that carried Auburn to the victory. Facing the reigning SEC Pitcher of the Week Chris Rusin, the Tigers started early and never let up as they scored 12 runs in four innings off Rusin one week after he didn't allow an earned run in a victory over Ole Miss on the road. Coach Tommy Slater says it was a night when his team played offense early to set the tone.
"We did a nice job," Slater says. "We hit a lot of line drives and even our outs were hard ground balls and some line drive outs. The kids really focused on trying to stay through the ball and stay behind it. Rusin on the mound, he has a little bit of movement to his arm side, and I thought our guys did a nice job of taking a good approach the other way.
"I think our kids had a good gameplan and good approach," he adds. "They had seen film on him so they had a good idea of what he wanted to do. They did a nice job of applying it. The guys were locked in pretty well."
Auburn jumped on top of the Wildcats early to take control of Thursday night's contest as a Sanders leadoff walk in the top of the second got things going for the Tigers. Up next, first baseman Andy Bennett laced a double into the gap in left-center that got by Antone DeJesus in center field, allowing Sanders to score and put Auburn on top. Following a ground ball to the right side by Robert Brooks to move Bennett to third, a Ross Smith single to center field scored Bennett to make it 2-0 Tigers.
Staked to the early lead, Crawford pitched around a one-out walk in the second to keep Kentucky scoreless and give his offense a chance to extend the lead in the third. Up first, senior Bruce Edwards singled to right field on the first pitch and it signaled a sign of things to come on this night. After a failed bunt attempt by Luke Greinke, Josh Donaldson singled to the base of the wall in right field as Edwards had to hold up to see if the ball was going to be caught.
A Mike Bianucci ground ball to short forced Donaldson for the second out but a Sanders double would score Edwards to bring Bennett to the plate with Auburn looking to break the game open. It came with the help of some shaky Kentucky defense as Bennett's ground ball to third was thrown away at first. Both runners scored on the error to make it 5-0 Tigers heading to the bottom of the third.
Sanders had another good game to continue a strong freshman season for the Tigers.
Struggling with his control in the first two innings, Crawford blew up in the third to let Kentucky back in the game for an instant. Back to back walks to start things off gave the Wildcats some life and first baseman Sawyer Carroll made Crawford pay as his single scored DeJesus to put Kentucky on the board. After getting the first out of the inning, Crawford hit Mike Brown to load the bases for Ryan Wilkes.
Continuing his struggles, Crawford walked Wilkes to score Brian Spear from third and make it 5-2 Tigers. With the bases still loaded, shortstop Ryan Wilkes lifted a fly ball down the left field line. On a dead sprint, Greinke made a diving grab in left field to save at least two runs and send the Tigers to the plate looking to break the game open.
Leading off the fourth, Smith was hit by a pitch to get the offense untracked once again. Looking to move the runner over, Phillip Stringer put down a perfect bunt that went for a base hit and give the Tigers two base runners with nobody out and Edwards coming to the plate. Also wanting to bunt, Edwards bunted the ball back to the pitcher. Unsure of what to do, Rusin threw wild to third. The error would allow Smith to score and both runners to move into scoring position with nobody out. A Greinke single followed to score Stringer and a wild throw allowed the sophomore to advance to second.
With runners on second and third and nobody out, Kentucky chose to walk Bianucci intentionally to pitch to Sanders. Bad move. After fouling a ball off his left foot, Sanders calmly stroked a pitch deep to left field that plunked off the scoreboard for a grand slam. It was Sanders' third home run of the season and his fifth RBI of the night. The blast gave Auburn a commanding 12-2 advantage and they never looked back.
"He fouled that ball of his ankle pretty hard," Slater says of Sanders. "He was writhing around in pain on the ground and rolling around a bit acting like he didn't want to play. We kind of had to talk to him a little bit. We were all set to bring (Ryan) Jenkins in right then but he said he was okay. His adrenaline starting pumping a little bit and he put a good swing on that ball. I was proud of Joseph. He's a hard working kid. He's really, really had a very good freshman year for us."
The two teams traded runs before Kentucky scored two in the bottom of the eighth to cut the Auburn lead back to eight at 13-5. The Tigers finished off in style as they added five runs in the ninth inning to put the Wildcats out of their misery. Kentucky managed two runs in the bottom of the ninth off Blake but it was very much too little, too late as Auburn won going away 18-7.
At the plate Auburn was led by Donaldson with four hits and two runs scored while Edwards added three hits and scored three times. Six other Tigers came up with two hits with Sanders the big contributor with a double, grand slam, and six RBI. Kentucky was paced at the plate by Carroll and Wilkes with two hits each.
Auburn will go for the series win on Friday at 5:30 p.m. central time as freshman Taylor Thompson (4-2, 5.77 ERA) will take the mound for the Tigers against Andrew Albers (6-4, 4.84) for the Wildcats.