“It’s huge for us to get a win in this Friday night game,” said shortstop Casey McElroy, who helped lead the Tigers to victory with three of his team’s 16 hits. “For whatever reason, Friday nights seem to be our struggle nights.”
The Tigers improved to 13-9 in the SEC and 31-15 overall while the Bulldogs fell to 5-17 in the conference and 20-26 overall.
Auburn improved to 13-0 for the season against left-handed starting pitchers. “I have no idea of why we are doing that,” McElroy said. “We did set up a left-handed breaking ball machine and practiced hitting against that. I think that helped us out a lot.”
McElroy said Auburn’s six-run first inning was one of its best of the season and set the tone for the game.
Another Tiger who chipped in with three hits, Justin Fradejas, agreed with McElroy about the importance of the strong start and noted that he believes his team is playing its best baseball so far this year.
“I think we keep getting better as a team,” Fradejas said. “Our pitchers keep getting better and we are swinging the bats well. I absolutely think we are playing our best baseball of the season and I think we are going to keep improving.”
Auburn coach John Pawlowski said he likes the way his team is playing. “I think when you look at the season, you break the season down and we have done some good things.
“We won that Kentucky game when we came back and we played well at Arkansas,” he said. “I think the guys are understanding how to play right now. We are making some progress.
“There are lot of games left to play, but if you had to pick a time when you are going to be playing your best baseball, you want to play your best baseball the last quarter of the season,” the coach added.
The Tigers started impressively in the bottom of the first inning against Mississippi State lefty Tyler Whitney. Fradejas led off with a sharp single back through the box to stretch his hitting streak to 27 games.
Auburn then loaded the bases with one out setting the stage for Tony Caldwell’s hit to bring home two runs with his single scoring Trent Mummey and Brian Fletcher.
The lead quickly jumped to 5-0 as McElroy launched a pitch over the left center field fence to score Hunter Morris and Caldwell for a three-run homer.
On his second at-bat of the first inning, Fradejas lined a single to left field to put the Tigers up 6-0. The Bulldogs finally got the Tigers out after the home team racked up seven hits in the inning off of Whitney, who went the distance for the Bulldogs.
The lead grew to 7-0 with the Tigers adding a run in the second inning. Morris, who was hit by a pitch, scored on a two-out single by Ryan Jenkins, who has been one of Auburn’s hottest hitters in recent games.
Mississippi State’s first serious threat off of Auburn starting pitcher Cory Luckie came in the sixth inning as Sam Frost doubled to right center field to open the inning before Nick Vickerson walked. A groundout to Morris at first base advanced the runners to second and third for MSU star Connor Powers. On a three-two count he took a pitch high to load the bases.
Russ Sneed then poked a two-strike pitch into right field for the first run of the game for the Bulldogs, sending Pawlowski to the mound for a pitching change. Luckie, who allowed just five hits, got a standing ovation from the Tiger fans as he left the field to make way for lefty Sean Ray.
“As a pitcher you couldn’t ask for more,” Luckie said of the support he is getting from his hitters.
“My curve ball was working pretty well today,” the lefty pitcher said. “I was able to throw it for strikes. I started finding my change-up later in the game.”
Luckie admitted he got tired in the sixth inning and didn’t do a good job of handling the warm, humid night. He noted that he plans to get in extra running this week to get in better shape for the stretch run.
The first reliever didn’t help Auburn’s cause as the initial batter Ray faced, Jaron Shepherd, doubled into the right field corner to score two more runs cutting Auburn’s lead to 7-3.
Ray pitched to just one more batter, a left-hander, forcing a popup to first base for the second out. Pawlowski then reappeared from the dugout and called on right-hander Bradley Hendrix to face a right-handed hitter. Instead, he faced a lefty pinch-hitter, Ryan Collins, who grounded out harmlessly to second base to end the inning.
The Tigers responded in the bottom of the sixth inning with a leadoff single by Fradejas. He advanced to second base on a groundout by Mummey and scored from there on a double to left center by Fletcher to make the score 8-3 Tigers.
Hendrix pitched into the eighth inning. With one out after an error on a ground ball to Wes Gilmer at third by Connor Powers and base on balls to Sneed put runners on first and second base, Pawlowski made the call to the bullpen for closer Austin Hubbard.
As was the case with Ray, the reliever was greeted with a double to score a run. After a strikeout, the Tigers gifted the Bulldogs two more runs when second baseman Justin Hargett’s error on pop fly into short right field made the score 8-6. The Tigers then got out of the inning on a pop fly to right by Trey Johnson.
In the bottom of the eight inning, Fletcher doubled and looked to be clearly safe sliding into third, but was called out by umpire Brian Donnelly. That drew the wrath of the crowd of 2,788 at Plainsman Park as well as Pawlowski with the call.
However, the next batter, Morris, added an insurance run with a long home run to right field to make the score 9-6. Hubbard then took care of business in the ninth inning to seal the victory.
The Tigers, who had not played since Sunday at Arkansas, came out sharp despite no midweek games. “I think it was a good win for us tonight because of the fact that guys are in exams,” Pawlowski said. “You always wonder what the mental state of mind is of kids coming back with a lot of other distractions going on with their academics.”
Game two of the series is scheduled for 3 p.m. on Saturday.
Game Notes: Fradejas now has the second longest hitting streak in school history by 31 by Casey Dunn in 1997...Russ Sneed and Jaron Shepherd each had two hits apiece for the Bulldogs...MSU starter Tyler Whitney threw 135 pitches as the Bulldogs did not use thier bullpen...Pawlowski did not name his starting pitcher for game two.
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