Auburn, Ala.—It’s hard to top the opening day performance for Auburn senior pitcher Derek Varnadore and the Tigers as he allowed just one run on five hits in seven innings and struck out 11 in a 5-2 win over Missouri in front of 3,577 at Plainsman Park.
Jay Gonzalez, Ryan Tella and Creede Simpson all had two hits for Auburn as the Tigers used the small ball approach to earn the win.
The story of the game was Varnadore though as he blew away the visiting Tigers from the start and set the tone for win. Throwing just 98 pitches after being very limited both in the fall and early spring to rest his throwing arm, the senior said for him it was a great way to start 2012.
“I can’t ask for much better than that,” Varnadore said. “Coming off what I have been doing all fall and this spring, I’m excited about that one. Coming off the arm stuff I was doing it was a good start for me.
"I had to spot up all day," he said. "I got to throw a few breaking balls, but from a spotting up (fastball) standpoint that’s my strength and that’s what I did all day.”
A former pitcher himself, Coach John Pawlowski knows a good outing when he sees one and that’s what he got on Friday from Varnadore.
“He’s got that ability to locate that fastball,” Pawlowski said. “He had some innings where he kept dotting his fastball and when a guy can do that with that type of velocity it makes it tough. What a big lift for us. Opening day and a lot of new faces, what a great crowd. I was very pleased and excited for Varny.”
Offensively, Auburn got plenty of production up and down the lineup in the win as six different players combined for nine hits led by the trio of players with two hits each. A veteran that made his first career start at second base, Simpson had a pair of hits, scored a run, and drove home a run in the win.
“That’s awesome because everybody comes out here on opening day and we’re all excited,” Simpson said. “Everybody was antsy ready to come out. It feels like it has been a while since we’ve won on opening night. It’s real exciting.
“We call it (offense) speed-pressure,” he added. “That’s the term we use for it. It’s fun. You’re running a lot and moving the ball around. It’s working for us. That’s a good team we played. We had to do that kind of stuff to put ourselves in a position to win.”
After stranding a pair of runners in the first inning following singles by both Gonzalez and Tella, Auburn finally got on the board in the bottom of the third inning. Leading things off, catcher Blake Austin cracked a double to left-center, but back-to-back fly balls from Bobby Andrews and Gonzalez looked like they would strand the sophomore. Tella had other ideas however as he doubled to right-center for his second hit of the game. Austin scored easily on the play to make it 1-0 Auburn.
Mowing down Missouri through the first three innings without giving up a hit, Varnadore ran into trouble in the top of the fourth. Brannon Champagne and Conner Mach singled to put a pair of runners on with nobody out. Trying to put the pressure on Missouri put the hit and run on, however Eric Garcia swung and missed leaving Champagne hung out to dry as Austin gunned him down at third base. It was the second runner caught stealing of the game for the sophomore catcher.
Varnadore recovered to strike out Garcia for out number two, but Ben Turner’s two-out single tied the game for Missouri as Mach scored easily from second. Dane Opel also singled for the fourth hit of the inning, but the Auburn senior recovered to keep the game tied at one.
In the bottom of the fourth Simpson doubled with one out to put the homestanding Tigers in business. Following a ground ball by Zach Alvord that moved Simpson to third with two outs freshman Jarred Smith came through in the clutch. Just missing a home run in his first at-bat, Smith ripped a single to center field to score Simpson and put Auburn in front 2-1.
A leadoff walk in the top of the sixth put Varnadore in another jam, but junior college transfer Garrett Cooper picked him up with the play of the game. Mach hit a screamer down the line at first base that the 6-6 Cooper caught on a dive. He stepped on the bag for the double play and Varnadore finished off the inning by striking out Garcia for the second time on the day. It was his 11th of the game.
Auburn had a chance to break things open in the bottom of the sixth as Cooper was hit by a pitch with one out. Following a Cullen Wacker fly ball to left, Simpson singled to right and moved to second on the throw. Now with runners on second and third and two outs it was up to Zach Alvord, but the sophomore struck out to keep the score 2-1 Auburn.
Getting some help from Missouri, Auburn added to its lead in the seventh to give the bullpen some insurance to work with. Leading off Smith worked a walk on 10 pitches to get things started. Following an Austin strikeout Andrews reached on a bunt single to put runners on first and second for Gonzalez. With reliever Blake Holovach on the mound the sophomore bounced a single into left field to score Smith for the two-run lead.
Jay Gonzalez reaches on a bunt single
Holovach rebounded to strike out Tella for the second out, but in the process Andrews and Gonzalez both stole a base to put two in scoring position for the heart of the Auburn order. Missouri decided to go to the bullpen to bring in Brett Graves and it proved to be the wrong move for the visitors. After hitting Cooper with a pitch he walked Wacker and Simpson to force home two runs. Just like that Auburn had a 5-1 lead going to the eighth.
Reliever Zach Blatt allowed a solo home run to Missouri’s Blake Brown with one out in the eighth inning, but that would be all as Auburn went to the bottom of the eighth inning up 5-2. That’s how it would finish as the Opelika native finished things off in the ninth to preserve the victory.
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