AUBURN - If only Casey McElroy’s ninth-inning drive had been two feet higher. If only the ball had not popped out of second baseman Justin Hargett’s glove. If only McElroy had tagged up at second on Wes Gilmer’s long drive to center in the eighth inning. If only Gilmer had gotten a bunt down. If only starting pitcher Slade Smith could have gotten a borderline strike call.
Slade Smith pitched into the ninth inning Sunday.
If only …
But in the end, Auburn came up just short Sunday of a series sweep, falling 7-6 to Alabama on Sunday at Plainsman Park. Alabama’s victory set up a wild finish to the Southeastern Conference West Division race.
Auburn (28-24, 13-14), Alabama (31-22, 13-14), Arkansas (34-13, 13-14) and Mississippi State (32-19, 13-14) are tied for first place going into final series of the regular season. Ole Miss (28-23, 12-15) is one game behind and LSU (33-19, 12-16) two games behind.
In the final week, Auburn plays at Tennessee, Alabama plays at home against South Carolina, LSU plays at Mississippi State and Ole Miss plays at Arkansas. All SEC series start on Thursday.
Auburn needs only one win over Tennessee or one loss by LSU to clinch a spot in the SEC Tournament.
Sophomore Slade Smith pitched a career-high 8 2/3 innings, but Alabama scored a run in the eighth and three in the ninth to take a 7-4 lead. Auburn answered with two in the ninth on Creede Simpson’s leadoff homer, a walk to Justin Fradejas and Caldwell’s double off the top of the left-centerfield wall.
“It’s tough,” Smith said. “Anytime you go out there and play hard and lose, it’s tough. It’s baseball. You’re not going to win them all. It was a great game. We’d have loved to have had a win, but at the end of the day, the coaches asked us to play hard. That’s exactly what we did.”
Auburn got to Alabama starter Jonathan Smart, who finished the game with a 2.21 ERA, for two runs in the first on McElroy’s sacrifice fly and Wes Gilmer’s run-scoring double. Auburn did not another hit until the seventh inning. Alabama tied it at 2-2 in the fourth with the help Hargett’s error on a wind-blown popup and took a 3-2 lead in the sixth.
Auburn went up 4-3 in the seventh on Kevin Patterson’s double and two bunt base hits. Alabama tied it in the eighth and scored three in the ninth.
Auburn lost a big chance in the eighth when McElroy and Caldwell singled with no outs. Gilmer fouled off two bunts, then hit a deep drive to center. McElroy did not tag up and go to third and the Tigers didn’t score.
“We couldn’t manufacture a run,” Pawlowski said. “We tried to move somebody over. I think that inning kind of set us on our heels. But our team battled back all the way to the end. We just came up short.”
Reliever Tucker Hawley, pitching for the first time since April 3, gave up two runs in two innings and got the win. Smith took the loss and fell to 2-1 on the season.
Auburn plays at South Alabama on Tuesday.