BY AARON BRENNER | firstname.lastname@example.org
AUBURN, Ala. – Two games remain in the trip across the state, but opening night served as sweet revenge for Alabama baseball.
Losing to Auburn in the MAX Capital City Classic on neutral ground in Montgomery on March 5 bugged the Crimson Tide, who settled the score momentarily with a thorough 6-2 road victory Thursday night at Plainsman Park.
“This one, being Auburn vs. Alabama, is always a big deal,” Alabama starter Charley Sullivan said. “We’ve never really played well in that Montgomery game, so to come here and play well and swing the bats like we did, it’s a good feeling to get the first one.”
Sullivan (3-1, 2.60 ERA) went eight innings, allowing five hits and one run with one walk against seven strikeouts. The Crimson Tide (16-10, 6-1 SEC) remained in first place in the SEC West, having won nine of its last 11 games since an early March losing skid.
Meanwhile, the Tigers (15-11, 0-7) remain languishing at the bottom. They very nearly mounted a legendary rally, bringing leadoff hitter Ryan Tella to the plate representing the tying run.
But Russell County grad Ray Castillo picked up his fifth save when the tremendously slumping Tella struck out for the third time Thursday to end the game.
“Obviously Auburn is a little more incentive, when you have Alabama across your chest,” Crimson Tide coach Mitch Gaspard said.
Auburn lefty Conner Kendrick (2-1, 1.80) wasn’t nearly as superb as he was in the MAX Capital City Classic, pitching the final six scoreless frames against Alabama. In his second go-around vs. Alabama, he allowed 9 hits, 4 walks and 6 runs in 5 1/3 innings.
“He’d really gotten us out with the fastball away and a good breaking ball,” Gaspard said. “The main thing was grinding out our at-bats, and don’t be easy. We fought some pitches off and then delivered some big hits.”
But Kendrick wasn’t bad either, better than his final line reflects, since four of those runs were all unearned in the third inning to sting the promoted reliever in his first Auburn start.
“He’ll certainly get another opportunity out there. I thought he battled,” Auburn coach John Pawlowski said. “We’ve got to help him get out of an inning, and we didn’t do that.”
Shortstop Dan Glevenyak muffed a routine grounder to help load the bases, and left fielder Cullen Wacker let a base hit to left slip through his legs for two head-shaking errors in the decisive frame.
“We’ve been good at that, these first seven games of SEC play: we’re really taken advantage of mistakes on the other side,” Gaspard said.
The third was also decisive because of the bottom half. The Tigers gave cleanup hitter Garrett Cooper a bases-loaded, one-out opportunity to leave a serious dent in the 5-0 deficit, but Cooper grounded into a threat-ending double play.
Another rinse-repeat example of clutch hitting escaping the Auburn dugout, especially for the veterans Tella and Cooper.
“They’re always disappointed when we don’t perform well and we don’t win,” Pawlowski said of his veterans, Tella and Cooper. “But they’re mature players, and they understand tomorrow we’ve got to come out and get something going early.
“There’s no magical formula … other than the fact that we keep getting them on, sooner or later, we’re going to bust through with some big innings.”
Alabama first baseman Austen Smith was 3-for-5 with two RBIs, including the game’s first run on a solo shot with one out in the second. Catcher Brett Booth took advantage of the Tigers’ leaky defense with a double driving in two unearned runs.
Catcher Blake Austin avoided the indignity of Auburn’s first shutout this year with a deep homer to left, his first home run of the year. Patrick Savage poked a pinch-hit RBI single the opposite way in the ninth.
The 4,043 fans on hand set the highest Plainsman Park attendance of the year to date.
The series resumes Friday at 7 p.m. ET, with Pacelli alum Michael O’Neal (4-2, 2.78) of Auburn dueling fellow lefty Jon Keller (3-2, 2.78).