AUBURN – As sophomore right-hander Slade Smith, fighting fatigue, stood on the mound in the ninth inning, the Plainsman Park crowd was up and roaring. It was like he dreamed it would be for all those years.
Slade Smith tied his career-long outing with seven innings pitched/Todd Van Emst photo
Smith, the son of a former Auburn quarterback, promptly retired the final there batters in his strongest outing of the season and Auburn won a crucial Southeastern Conference game and series, 9-7 over Ole Miss.
“I can’t say enough about the fans getting up and cheering,” said Smith, whose father, Ted, was Heisman Trophy winner Pat Sullivan’s backup in 1971. “I was walking around the mound and the hair on my arms was tingling because of the atmosphere. I can’t thank the fans enough and just want to say War Eagle to them.”
Kevin Patterson hit a three-run homer to right into a stiff wind in the seventh inning, giving the Tigers the lead for the first time at 8-7. Wes Gilmer’s run-scoring singled in the eighth provided some insurance.
Auburn won its third consecutive series, its seventh SEC game in the last nine, improved to 22-17 overall and 9-9 in the SEC and moved into a tie for first in the West. Ole Miss fell to 24-17 and 9-9.
Because the series started Thursday night for television, Auburn and Ole Miss are done for the weekend. Alabama (25-17, 8-9) lost its second straight, 9-2 at Florida, and fell out of first place. Arkansas (27-10, 8-8) lost the first game of a doubleheader at Kentucky and the second game was suspended with score tied 0-0.
Going into Sunday, Auburn, Ole Miss and Arkansas are tied for first place. Alabama is a half game back. Because it won two of three from both, Auburn has tiebreakers on the Rebels and the Razorbacks.
It didn’t look so promising for the Tigers early Saturday.
Starter Jon Luke Jacobs struggled, giving up five runs in two innings. Cory Luckie, previously scheduled to start, couldn’t pitch because of pain in his arm. Closer Dillon Ortman was sick and unable to pitch. Left fielder Bobby Andrews, an offensive catalyst in the Auburn surge, injured his wrist Friday and was unable to play.
Ole Miss led 5-1 after the top of the second inning and 5-2 when Smith took the mound to start the third inning. Auburn did not need another pitcher. He went seven innings, giving up two runs on four hits and got his first win since opening day.
“It’s been a struggling effort for me so far,” said Smith, who is 2-0 with a 6.92 ERA. “That’s baseball. I’m just glad Coach gave me a chance.”
Auburn picked away at the Rebels, scoring single runs in each of the first five innings. In the seventh, with Ole Miss leading 7-5, Patterson got the big hit, his seventh home run of the season.
In their last nine SEC games, Auburn has outscored its opponents 49-14 after the sixth inning. Things have changed dramatically since the Tigers were 2-7 in the SEC and coming off back-to-back sweeps against Vanderbilt and Mississippi State.
“We had a meeting and talked about this is not where we want to be,” Pawlowski said. “We dug ourselves a huge hole. You dig yourself out, find your way to the top. We have a lot of older guys, especially, position players. They understand it’s a long season, a long journey.”
Patterson understood when he faced a 2-0 count against Ole Miss reliever R.J. Hivley that it was his moment, his time. On a calm day, his home run would have easily cleared the fence. But with the wind blowing in, it barely made it.
“I was looking for a fastball and I got it,” Patterson said. “It was up in the zone. I got under it, but fortunately I got it out of there.”
Smith, a sinkerballer, said an adjustment suggested by Pawlowski and pitching coach Scott Foxhall, made a dramatic difference in his confidence on the mound.
“My arm slot had gone up a little bit, and the batters were able to pick up my pitches a little better,” Smith said. “I dropped back down, and it adds more movement to my sinker and even more velocity to my pitches.
“It just shows the coaches are helping me out and spending time with me to get me back where I need to be. It’s given me a lot of confidence.”
Auburn returns to Plainsman Park on Tuesday to play Samford. Texas Southern visits on Wednesday. The Tigers go to South Carolina for a three-game series next weekend.