Arkansas' loss to South Carolina and an Ole Miss win over Alabama leaves the Tigers just one game out of first place in the Western division despite the loss to Tennessee (29-21, 12-13). With the Alabama loss Auburn can also clinch a spot in the SEC Tournament in Hoover with either one win or one Alabama loss.
Those things didn't make Friday night any easier to take for coach John Pawlowski as his team got down early 3-0 and never recovered in the loss. Starter Cory Luckie allowed four earned runs on five hits in three and two/thirds innings, setting the tone for the rest of the game. He walked just two, but the relief efforts of Stephen Kohlscheen and Jon Luke Jacobs made up for that with seven combined walks in the final five and one/third innings.
Throw in Auburn's 1-11 showing with runners in scoring position and nine runners left on base and you have a performance that Pawlowski would just as soon forget.
"It was a frustrating night," Pawlowski said. "From a walk standpoint I think three of them came around to score. We never really got out of the gate. (Cody) Hawn hit a three-run home run early in the game. We gave them some pitches to hit and they did a good job. They turned on some balls and hit some balls hard and left 10 guys on base. It was just a frustrating night all the way around. We never really had a chance to be in that ballgame tonight."
Coming in winners of nine of its last 10 games, Tennessee wasted little time in showing which was the hotter team on Friday night as the Vols struck for three quick runs in the top of the first. Auburn didn't help itself as shortstop Casey McElroy couldn't handle a slow roller from Khayan Norfork to open the game. That set the stage for Tennessee as following a fielder's choice to move the runner to second, Luckie walked P.J. Polk to bring Hawn to the plate. Hitting a grand slam in the first inning on Sunday against Georgia, Hawn continued his hot streak with a long home run to right field to make it 3-0 Vols.
The Tigers made some noise in the bottom of the second as back-to-back singles by Dan Gamache and McElroy opened the inning to bring designated hitter Kevin Patterson to the plate. Auburn's leading hitter in SEC play, Patterson struck out on three pitches. A pop up and another strikeout got McCray out of the jam still holding onto the three-run lead.
With Luckie settling in at the moment the Tigers finally got on the board in the third as a one-out double by Trent Mummey was misplayed in right field allowing him to reach third with the heart of the Auburn order coming to the plate. Junior Brian Fletcher did his part as he jumped on the first pitch and lined it over the shortstop's head for a RBI single. First baseman Hunter Morris then followed suit with a single to right field to put runners on first and second. That would be as close as the Tigers would come though as a groundout and a flyout squelched the rally.
Now trailing 3-1 Luckie went back out to start the fourth, but didn't make it out the inning as Blake Forsythe led off with a homer to left. It was his 13th of the season and put the lead back at three for Tennessee. After getting an out, Luckie gave up three consecutive singles to make it 5-1 Vols. Kohlscheen came in to get Auburn out of the inning, but the damage was done.
The Vols extended their lead with a single run in the top of the fifth before Auburn would answer back in the bottom of the inning thanks to the work of leadoff man Justin Fradejas. Ripping a single to left field, Fradejas moved to second on a wild pitch and advanced to third on a fly ball. A sacrifice fly from Fletcher then scored him to make it a 6-2 game.
Walks continued to hurt the Tigers as Kohlscheen walked the leadoff man for his last batter of the evening before Jacobs came on to walk the second hitter. Both of them eventually came around to score on a Forsythe single as Tennessee opened things up to 8-2.
With one swing of the bat Auburn got the momentum back as Morris led off the bottom of the eighth with a long home run to right field. It was his 18th of the season to take the lead in the SEC. The Tigers weren't done though as, following an out, McCray hit McElroy with a pitch and walked Patterson to bring his day to an end. Reliever Steve Crnkovich came in with runners on second and third and appeared to step towards home plate before turning and catching McElroy off second base. The questionable pick off proved to be huge as Tony Caldwell followed with a single through the left side. With two outs instead of having at worst the bases loaded, Auburn needed a hit from Gilmer and instead he was called out on strikes to end the inning.
"It was tough," McElroy said. "I haven't seen anything like that. Apparently it was good and it worked for them. What I saw was his knee go up and I thought he was going to home plate. I took two shuffles and he turned around and got me out. That's all I can say about that."
After the strikeout Auburn third base coach Link Jarrett got all over the umpiring crew and Pawlowski came to his defense. In a very heated argument that lasted several minutes, Pawlowski gave home plate umpire Richie Guillie an earful before returning to the dugout.
The Tigers didn't threaten the rest of the way as they fell to open the series. McElroy said the goal is now to recover and get even on Saturday.
"It's pretty disappointing," McElroy said. "We just got beat. We've got to come out tomorrow and try to go for it again. We're going to give them our best effort."
The first pitch for Saturday's game is scheduled for 3 p.m. with Auburn listed as TBA on the mound. Steven Gruver will be on the hill for the Vols.