AUBURN, Ala. – Gripping the baseball moments before the first start of his major-college career, Michael O’Neal scanned the crowd in awe.
Even on a chilly day where only the brave and the diehards came out to Plainsman Park, the announced crowd of 2,619 was well more than the scatterings of folks who would watch O’Neal pitch at Chattahoochee Valley Community College.
O’Neal felt some nerves creeping in … until his second Maine batter smoked a line drive straight at the mound, and the Pacelli product helped himself with an instinctive grab.
“The comebacker right at me woke me up,” O’Neal said postgame, “so I was like, I’ve got to calm down.”
O’Neal labored into the sixth inning – the first of three Auburn starters to do so this young season – and picked up the pitching victory in his Tigers debut, sealing Auburn’s 12-3 and 4-3 doubleheader sweep of the Black Bears Saturday.
O’Neal lasted 5 2/3 innings, yielding six hits and two earned runs. He hit the strike zone 39 out of 54 pitches, striking out three without a walk.
“I can pitch a lot better. I didn’t hit my spots, but I got outs, got quick outs, like I should,” O’Neal said. “I was missing over the plate too much – that was the problem, throwing too many strikes. Couldn’t hit the inside, but we’ll fix that this week.”
Jay Wade cleaned up O’Neal’s sixth-inning mess, getting the strikeout with two on and two out to preserve the Tigers’ lead.
“He kept himself in the game as long as he could,” said center fielder Ryan Tella, “because we’ve got to come back with another one tomorrow, so we can’t wear out our bullpen too bad.”
Auburn’s bullpen has been as impressive as advertised, particularly with their ‘out’ pitches. The Tigers’ relievers have 13 punchouts in 12 1/3 innings of work.
Closers Conner Kendrick and Terrance Dedrick – both junior college transfers, like O’Neal – have faced 16 batters, allowing just three baserunners and striking out eight.
“Makes you not have to worry that much. When you know Connor and Terrance are coming in, game’s over,” O’Neal said. “They’re both going to strike out whoever they face. They’ve got dirty offspeed stuff – it’s over as soon as they come in.”
Tella, who drove in five runs Saturday, is already feeling the heat from preseason prognostications that the Tigers (3-0) won’t make much noise, at least when SEC play rolls around next month.
“What we’re ‘supposed’ to be, they don’t really think we’re that good of a team,” Tella said. “But it sure shows we have a bullpen than we’ve had the past couple of years. I would throw any of those guys out and not have to hold my breath.”
After a clean eighth, the left-handed Kendrick warmed up to begin the ninth inning, but was replaced by right-handed Dedrick when Maine (0-3) pinch-hit for matchups.
“We predetermined that if they were going to switch, we were going to switch,” Auburn head coach John Pawlowski said. “We had it planned that at some point, Dedrick was going to be in the ninth inning, but since they made that switch, we decided just to go with him.”
First baseman Garrett Cooper swatted a 2-run home run and shortstop Dan Glevenyak went 2-for-3 with four runs scored in the opening game. Justin Camp was awarded the pitching win, hurling four innings in relief of Rocky McCord.
Auburn goes for the season-opening sweep Sunday, with Dillon Ortman taking the mound.