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Tigers roar back into 1st place

KNOXVILLE – It started like Friday’s game, with Tennessee scoring three runs in the first inning. But the end was very different.

Derek Varnadore overcame a rough start to earn his sixth win.

Auburn’s offense attacked five pitchers for 18 hits and Derek Varnadore overcame his rough start on the mound as the Tigers moved back into first place in the Southeastern Conference West with a 13-4 blowout of Tennessee at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.

On the last day of the regular season, Auburn’s destiny is in its own hands. With a victory over the last-place Vols in today’s 1 p.m. CDT game, it can claim at least a share of its second consecutive West Division championship and the No. 2 seed in next week’s Southeastern Conference Tournament in Hoover.

The Tigers (29-26, 14-15) fell out of a four-way tie for first after a 5-2 loss on Thursday, but they are tied with Alabama, a 6-3 loser to South Carolina on Friday, and Mississippi State, a 6-5 winner over LSU, going into the final day of the regular season. Win or lose, the Tigers have clinched a spot in the SEC Tournament.

Auburn, Alabama and Mississippi State are half a game ahead of Arkansas and Ole Miss. LSU beat Mississippi State 5-4 Thursday and the two teams will play the rubber game Saturday. Arkansas and Ole Miss were rained out and will play two seven-inning games Saturday.

Auburn can clinch at least a share of the championship with a victory. If Mississippi State loses to LSU, it can clinch the No. 2 seed in the SEC Tournament with a victory. If Ole Miss or Arkansas sweeps Saturday’s doubleheader, as many as four teams could share the West Division championship.

Auburn has tiebreakers over every team in the West but Mississippi State. Tiebreakers are used only for tournament seeding. If there is a tie at the top involving two or more teams, all will be division co-champions.

Third-year coach John Pawlowski has seen his team through good times and bad in a bumpy season. But through it all, on the last day a championship is there for the taking.

“One of our goals, obviously, was to get into the SEC Tournament,” Pawlowski said. “Going back to back is pretty special in itself. Having an opportunity to play for a championship tomorrow is obviously very, very important for us.”

After falling behind in the first, Auburn scored in five consecutive innings to take a 9-3 lead. Catcher Tony Caldwell, who was robbed of a home run in the first on a leaping catch by left fielder Curtis Fritts, finished it off in the top of the ninth. After Tennessee intentionally walked hot-hitting Casey McElroy intentionally, Caldwell launched his grand slam of the season over the left field fence.

Caldwell admitted he was surprised when Tennessee chose to load the bases for him in the ninth.

“Definitely,” Caldwell said. “I mean, I’d do the same thing. Casey is hot. My two previous at-bats I had wasted I guess made me look like an easy out. I just had to come to the front. It feels good. I didn’t think I had it all the way, but I’m glad it got out.

“It was a huge win. Huge win. It’s a great feeling. We can relax a little bit and be ready to come out tomorrow and play for a championship.”

Caldwell finished with three hits and drove in six runs.

Varnadore gave up four runs on 10 hits in 6 2/3 innings to run his record to 6-2. He struck out seven. Zach Blatt pitched 2 1/3 scoreless innings, giving up two hits and striking out three.

Justin Hargett had four hits for the Tigers, two on bunts. He scored four runs and drove in two.

“I was just trying to get on base,” Hargett said. “Today was a big win for us. We really needed it. I was just trying to find ways to get on base and score runs. There was a little bit of pressure, but we had to come in here with confidence and just brush yesterday’s loss off.”

McElroy and Cullen Wacker had three hits apiece. Justin Fradejas had two.

TONY CALDWELL VIDEO

JOHN PAWLOWSKI VIDEO

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