Auburn took the field today at 9-17 in S.E.C. play and 22-30 overall. The Plainsmen awoke on Mother's Day morning sporting the league's longest losing streak (six in a row) and its second-worst record against top 15 teams (7-12).
The Tigers were seven games out of first place in the West and had lost to the Bulldogs on Friday and Saturday. So how big a deal, really, was Sunday afternoon's series-concluding contest on the Plains?
It mattered quite a lot, actually.
This fact has been confirmed by other sources and special thanks go out to Paul Westerdawg for directing my attention to this piece over at the Dawg Run, which detailed the current conference standings (as of Saturday) heading into the S.E.C. baseball tournament.
The Wildcats led the league with an 18-8 ledger, followed by Western Division frontrunner Alabama (16-10). At 15-11, Georgia and Arkansas were tied for the third-best record in the conference, but the Diamond Dogs would occupy the higher seed by virtue of having gone 2-1 against the Razorbacks during the regular season.
Georgia holds the tiebreaker over Arkansas due to head-to-head competition . . . and, also, due to the fact that "Razorback" is just a fancy word for "pig."
The Red and Black's 10-4 road record in S.E.C. play made the 2006 squad the first baseball team in Georgia history to have posted a double-digit victory total in conference games on foreign fields, as well as the only team in the league to win four road series in S.E.C. play this season . . . and those wins came against some pretty stiff competition.
Entering into Sunday's action, Georgia remained in a position to win or tie for the Eastern Division crown, for which the contenders were the two hottest teams in the S.E.C.: Kentucky, which had won seven in a row and gone 9-1 in its last 10 outings, and the Red and Black, who awoke this morning riding a 10-game winning streak.
It was with all of these considerations in the backs of their minds that the Bulldogs took the field to face the Tigers on the Plains earlier this afternoon, secure in the knowledge that a victory would guarantee Georgia a winning record in conference play and keep alive the Bulldogs' hopes for a first-place finish in the division. Needless to say, I was a dozen different kinds of nervous.
I was calmed somewhat when the Diamond Dogs had what we have come to regard as a typical first-inning outburst. Jonathan Wyatt led off with a single up the middle and, after Joey Side lined out on the first pitch thrown his way, the Georgia left fielder took second base on a wild pitch.
Gordon Beckham's subsequent single scored Wyatt, then Bobby Felmy followed up a Josh Morris strikeout with a double to plate Beckham and give the Red and Black a 2-0 lead heading into the bottom of the opening frame.
There ensued a period of three consecutive scoreless innings as both offenses were held in check by Georgia's Nathan Moreau and Auburn's Chris Dennis. The Bulldogs mounted a threat in the top of the third inning, but neither squad added a run until the bottom of the fourth frame, when the home team took it upon itself to defend its turf.
Josh Donaldson began the big inning with a single to left center. Russell Dixon was hit by a pitch during his at-bat, which allowed Jeff Boutwell to bring the Tiger catcher home with a double. An Andy Bennett walk and a Justin Bristow base hit kept the inning alive, then the scoring was concluded when Bruce Edwards reached on a fielder's choice and plated Boutwell to give the Plainsmen a 3-2 advantage.
The Red and Black went quietly in the top of the fifth, managing nothing more than a Side lineout, a Beckham pop-up, and a Morris flyout that required Dennis to expend a mere six pitches. The Tigers threatened to add to their lead when Luke Greinke led off the bottom of the fifth frame with a double, but he never made it beyond third base.
I was in full fretting mode by the time the Diamond Dogs came up to bat in the top of the sixth stanza, but the visiting squad did not let me down. Following a Felmy groundout, Jason Jacobs drew a base on balls and advanced to second on a Matt Olson single down the left field line. Ryan Peisel finished the job with a base hit up the middle to bring Jacobs home, tie the game, and get Dennis pulled in favor of Bryan Woodall.
Matthew Dunn put down a sacrifice bunt to score Olson, then Wyatt reached on a War Eagle fielding error and Side walked on four straight pitches to load the bases, allowing a Beckham single to bring home two more runs and give the Bulldogs a 6-3 advantage.
I hate Auburn.
Some pitching changes and a bit of minor drama took place during the next inning and a half, but, in the end, Jacobs was stranded at third by the Red and Black and Tyler Johnstone was left on that selfsame base by the home team, leaving the score unaltered heading into the eighth inning.
Greinke relinquished his position as designated hitter and took over on the mound. His first pitch produced an out as Peisel put the ball in play but was unable to outrun his would-be single to first base. Greinke got ahead of Dunn in the count before the Bulldog second baseman put a double into left center field. A Wyatt flyout was followed by another double, as Side put a 2-2 pitch down the left field line to tack on another run.
Auburn took the run right back in the bottom of the eighth, when consecutive doubles by Boutwell and Bennett narrowed the gap to 7-4. The Diamond Dogs found this turn of events unacceptable and they made their displeasure known in the top of the ninth inning, which opened with a bang when Morris put a payoff pitch over the wall in left center field, Felmy was hit by a pitch, Jacobs knocked a double into left field, and Olson turned the first pitch he saw into a base hit.
The two additional runs this sequence of events produced yielded a 9-4 score heading into the home half of the final stanza, which began with a single up the middle by Edwards but otherwise went as planned, with a lineout by Johnstone and flyouts by Derek Sain and Mike Bianucci.
Georgia outhit Auburn by a 16-10 margin to claim the series sweep and keep pace in the Eastern Division race. Next weekend's showdown with Kentucky will be for all the marbles, but, for the moment, let us enjoy the fact that the Diamond Dogs, once left for dead, now have an 11-game winning streak and a shot at a first-place finish in the S.E.C. East.