Trailing 2-1 heading to the ninth inning after struggling to get runs off Vol starter Derek Tharpe, the Tigers were looking to continue their pattern of finding a way to win in the late innings. Hitless in three at-bats on the day, Bell got a 1-0 fastball from Tennessee reliever Patrick Green and pulled it through the left side of the infield for a single to give the Tigers some life. The hit brought about a change for the Vols as Dusty Johnson came on for Green, but his fate would be just the same.
Needing two runs, junior Karl Amonite swung away and dribbled a ground ball in the hole between first and second. Hit just slow enough, it allowed Bell to reach second and Amonite was safe at first to bring the crowd to its feet with Scott Schade coming to the plate. Just 1-11 in the series, Schade was asked to bunt the runners over but Johnson helped the cause when he bounced a 1-0 breaking ball in the dirt that got away from Tennessee catcher Javi Herrera. The wild pitch moved both runners into scoring position and Tennessee was forced to walk Schade to load the bases for Sain.
Derek Sain gets advice from Coach Steve Renfroe before his final at-bat.
Making his first career start after getting just six at-bats this season because of Auburn's depth and talent in the outfield, the Hoover native had been productive with one hit in three at-bats on the day. Just trying to make contact and get the tying run home, Sain got a knee-high pitch and drove it into right field to easily score Bell with the tying run.
"It was a pretty good day," a smiling Sain said following the win. "I didn't find out I was starting this morning until Sean got hurt (Sean Gamble strained a hamstring and is listed as day-to-day). I was kind of nervous about it but it took it pretty well and just played hard.
"I was hunting a curveball," he said of his final at-bat. "I figured with the lefty-on-lefty that he was going to throw a curveball. He hung one up there so I just tried to put it as deep in the outfield as I could."
Mr. Clutch for the Tigers, shortstop Chuck Jeroloman, was due up next and for a split-second it looked like he had done it again for Auburn. Facing a new pitcher and right-hander Brandon Crowe, he fought against a 1-2 count before drilling a liner into the left field corner. Running full speed, Tennessee's Josh Alley ran the ball down to keep Todd and Schade from advancing. That left things up to Thomas.
Advanced beyond his years in terms of talent, Thomas had already been the lone offensive star for the Tigers on the day with two of the seven Auburn hits heading to the ninth inning. This at-bat would be about smarts more than talent though as he quickly got ahead 2-0 in the count. With a base open and right-handed hitter Javon Moran on deck, it seemed like the Vols were willing to pitch around Thomas to set up the more favorable matchup. The right fielder would have none of that as he guided an outside fastball just over the infield into left for a single that sent Todd on his way from second. This time Alley wouldn't be as smooth as he bobbled the ball in left, allowing Todd to score easily with the game-winner. Greeted by his teammates after he crossed the plate, they quickly moved to the infield to mob Thomas and celebrate the victory.
Josh Todd scores the game-winner for the Tigers.
"I don't know how we do it," Thomas said. "We just keep coming up with big runs and big hits when it counts. We just have to keep doing that and keep playing good."
Unfortunately that's where things turned from intense to potentially ugly. Earlier in the contest, Alley slid hard into Schade at third base on a play that didn't have a throw. That didn't sit well with the Auburn team and things got worse in the eighth as Alley reached second base after one of his two hits with the Vols leading 2-1. Sliding into Jeroloman, he remained on the leg of the Auburn shortstop, who didn't like the action. Words were spoken and Alley shoved Jeroloman off the bag to bring players from both dugouts onto the field. Drawing a chorus of boos from the fans, the action only served to fuel the Tigers in their comeback victory. Following the game the players didn't shake hands to avoid a possible unfortunate incident.
"You don't want anything to happen here," Auburn Coach Steve Renfroe said following the game. "You're not looking to get in a fight. Where there are tempers I think it's a wise thing to do. All of the sudden when there is a lot of emotion, if you get huddle going and somebody says something you've got trouble. These are 18, 19, and 20-year old kids. I wouldn't make that big a deal out of this."
The victory was once again thanks to great pitching from the Tigers. This time starter Arnold Hughey and reliever Steven Register combined to all but shut down the Volunteers. Pitching seven innings and allowing two runs on 10 hits while throwing 87 pitches, Hughey saved Auburn after having to use six pitchers in Saturday's doubleheader. Register earned the victory and didn't allow a hit the final two innings while striking out four Tennessee hitters.
The Vols got on the scoreboard first as leadoff hitter Jordan Czarniecki doubled to left on a 2-2 pitch to immediately put the pressure on Hughey. Freshman first baseman Michael Rivera plated him on the next pitch with a single to right field and a 1-0 Tennessee lead. Hughey settled down to leave the damage minimal and that would become his motto on the day.
Auburn finally scratched a run out in the third inning off Tharpe, who shut down the Tigers last season in Auburn as a pitcher for the Samford Bulldogs. It would come with one swing as Moran bombed a 1-0 pitch deep over the green monster in left field for his first home run of the season. With the game tied at one, both pitchers settled in and kept the game scoreless until Tennessee took the lead back in the seventh inning.
A killer all weekend for the Vols, Brian Cleveland singled to right center off Hughey. Unbelievable at selecting pinch hitters all weekend (6-7), Tennessee Coach Rod Delmonico sent Alex Suarez to the plate for Kyle Norrid and he delivered with a singled to left to move Cleveland around to third. Something Tennessee is adept at is safety squeeze bunting runners home from third and that's what Nick Crowe did, pushing a bunt down the first base line to Amonite who went to first for the sure out. Trailing 2-1, the Tigers were forced to go down the comeback trail once again. It is a road that they feel comfortable traveling and did once again.
"I had base runners on every inning," Hughey said. "I just had to battle out of situations. I had a lot of double plays and good defense. We scored late but Steven came in and shut them down. He kept us in the game and got the crowd in the game. We just came through in the end. It's definitely a huge win. It's the first SEC series and we're ahead of half of the SEC right now. To come out with two and move on from there, we're in a good spot now."
The Tigers travel to Atlanta Tuesday night at 7 ET when they face the top-ranked Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, winners over Auburn 4-2 this past Tuesday at Plainsman Park. The game will be televised live by Comcast/Charter Sports Southeast.