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Vols hand Tigers bitter loss

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Auburn lost its chance to repeat as West Division champion Saturday. The Tigers were two outs from claiming a share of the championship and the No. 2 seed in next week’s SEC Tournament, but Tennessee scored twice in the bottom of the ninth to win 4-3.

Slade Smith was dominant until the ninth inning.

In a controversial decision, the SEC office made Auburn the No. 8 seed in the tournament. The Tigers will play No. 1 seed South Carolina at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday at Regions Park in Hoover.

Arkansas rallied from a 3-0 deficit to beat Ole Miss 5-3, sweeping a Saturday doubleheader, and emerged from the four-team pack that started the day tied for first.

Auburn, Alabama and Mississippi State all lost, opening the door for the Razorbacks.

For Auburn, the loss to Tennessee, the last-place in the league, was maddening.

Over and over again, the Auburn put itself in position to put a knockout punch on Tennessee on Saturday. And over and over again they came up short. Finally, with starter Slade Smith trying to finish a complete game, it got away in the bottom of the ninth.

A hit batter, a throwing error by Smith on a sacrifice bunt and an RBI groundout tied it. Andrew Toles’ base hit though the middle against closer Dillon Ortman ended it.

The Vols, the SEC’s worst team, celebrated a series win over Auburn at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.

The loss was more than costly for Auburn. The Tigers have to win at least one game at next week’s SEC Tournament just to be eligible for an NCAA regional.

Auburn could be the No. 2 seed, No. 6 or No. 8, based on the outcome of Saturday’s SEC games.

Tony Caldwell and Creede Simpson had run-scoring singles in the third inning as Auburn took a 2-0 lead. But even in that inning, the bases were left loaded.

In the seventh, the Tigers had runners on second and third and nobody out. They had the bases loaded and one out. They got nothing. They wasted a leadoff double in the sixth and left two on in the eighth.

For most of the game, Smith was dominant on the mound. He didn’t give up a hit until the sixth inning and didn’t give up a run until the eighth. He gave up a solo home run to Josh Liles leading off the ninth to tie the game. But Auburn got a run in the top of the ninth when Liles couldn’t handle Caldwell’s drive in left field and Fradejas scored.

That set the stage for the ninth inning.

Smith hit Davis Morgan with a pitch. Zach Osborne bunted back to Smith, who threw the ball into centerfield. Morgan ended up on third and Osborne on first. Nobody out. Drew Streckenrider grounded out to third, scoring Morgan and tying the game.

Ortman came on to face Toles, who slapped a single back up the middle to end the game.

No in in the Auburn dugout minimized what had just happened. It was a crushing loss.

“When you look at it, the opportunities we had, I wish we had some of those back,” Auburn coach John Pawlowski said. “It didn’t work out that way and it’s unfortunate. Certainly, the team is disappointed and frustrated for sure.”

The Tigers must win at least one game in Hoover to qualify for a regional. And Monday, the day regional bids go out, will be a nerve-wrcking day even if they do that.

“That’s the challenge this team has faced all year,” Pawlowski said. “We’ll regroup and go up there. Guys are going to continue to play hard and ultimately compete for a championship in Hoover.”

The frustration level was highest perhaps for Smith, who couldn’t get the door closed when the Tigers took the lead into the bottom of the ninth.

“Any performance isn’t good enough if you don’t win,” Smith said. “We battled. We had a chance to win. It’s just frustrating, and I hate it for our team. We have to pick our heads up and get ready for this tournament. We didn’t do enough to get the win today. That’s what it gets down to.”

The Vols finished their season 25-29 overall and 7-23 in the SEC, but they celebrated on Saturday.

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