The Diamond Dogs, despite having come into the weekend sporting a 5-11 record and riding a three-game skid, leapt out to a 2-0 start in S.E.C. play with a pair of one-run wins over Auburn on Friday and Saturday. The Red and Black thus came into Sunday's contest searching for the series sweep.
Justin Earls, the freshman left-hander who started a week ago in a loss to Gardner-Webb, drew the afternoon's pitching assignment and he began by giving up back-to-back base hits to Bruce Edwards and Luke Greinke. Although Josh Donaldson was thrown out at first, the Auburn catcher moved the runners over, leaving a vacant base that was occupied when Ryan Stanley walked.
One run scored on a single by Robert Brooks and another came home on a sacrifice fly by Andy Bennett. Ross Smith's subsequent flyout ended the top of the frame, but not before the visiting Plainsmen had taken a 2-0 lead. The Red and Black undertook to remedy that unfortunate circumstance in the home half of the inning, when Ryan Peisel dropped a single into right field and took second base on an interference call, but strikeouts by Jonathan Wyatt and Matt Olson, coupled with a flyout by Gordon Beckham, prevented the Georgia third baseman from coming around to score.
The second stanza did not begin any better for Earls than had the first, as he surrendered a base on balls to the initial batter he faced. Eric Skinner sacrificed the runner to second, but the next two Tiger batters recorded outs to keep him from advancing. This left the door open for the Diamond Dogs, who kicked off the bottom of the frame with a leadoff single by Joey Lewis.
Auburn shortshop Eric Skinner was held hitless in two at-bats on Sunday, prompting Nelson Muntz to point at him and exclaim, "Ha-ha!"
Rich Poythress did not leave his teammate on the basepaths for long, as a double to left field by the Georgia first baseman scored the Bulldog catcher, thereby halving the Tigers' lead. Although Matt Robbins flied out and Blake Cannady hit into a double play to leave Poythress stranded at second, at least the Classic City Canines had gotten on the board to remain within striking distance of the challengers.
Donaldson led off the top of the third inning with a base hit, which Stanley promptly nullified by grounding into a double play. Brooks was plunked in the ensuing at-bat and, when Bennett reached base on an error, the Auburn second baseman moved into scoring position. Fortunately, Smith ended the inning by hitting into a fielder's choice.
The Diamond Dogs came back up to bat and Mike Freeman proceeded to ground out to open the home half of the frame. This brought Wyatt to the plate and, despite his having been in a slump of late, the Georgia center fielder knocked a triple into left field to even the hits at four per side. This set the table for Peisel, who recorded the single that tied the game.
The Red and Black third baseman was caught stealing and Beckham flied out to conclude the third stanza with the score once more knotted. Earls returned to the mound in the top of the fourth frame and wasted no time getting Philip Stringer to ground out and Skinner to stare at a called third strike. The Georgia pitcher then closed out the top half of the frame by convincing Edwards to swing at strike three. Earls returned to the dugout having surrendered only one hit in his last three innings' worth of work.
Also, it's "Earls," with an "s."
The Diamond Dogs got off on the wrong foot in the bottom of the fourth frame, as Olson flied out and Lewis struck out to record the first two outs. Rather than go quietly, though, Poythress took first base on a walk and second base on a balk. Robbins, determined not to strand the Georgia first baseman in scoring position a second time, parked a pitch over the right field wall for the two-run shot that gave the Classic City Canines a 4-2 lead.
Cannady's ensuing groundout sent Earls back out to the mound, where he began the fifth inning by coaxing Greinke into flying out to left field. Although Donaldson managed a base hit in the next at-bat, Stanley hit into a double play to conclude the top of the frame and take the contest to its halfway point. The bottom of the inning went swiftly, consisting as it did of three straight Georgia groundouts.
Brooks led off the sixth stanza with a single to give each squad six hits for the afternoon. When Bennett and Smith followed this up with a pair of strikeouts, the Tiger second baseman figured he had better take matters into his own hands, whereupon he executed a successful steal to put himself in scoring position. Stringer proceeded to fly out to left field, concluding the fifth straight scoreless inning for the Plainsmen.
The bottom of the frame began with a base on balls to Beckham. Auburn pitcher Evan Crawford sneaked a called third strike past Olson before being lifted after surrendering four earned runs in just over five innings' worth of work. Crawford was succeeded on the mound by Brett Butts, who evidently chose to saddle himself with an Auburn education because he didn't consider it handicap enough to have to go through life with the name "Brett Butts."
No offense, Coach.
Just to see if the new pitcher for the Plainsmen was paying attention, Beckham took the opportunity to steal second base. Butts responded by striking out Lewis and inducing Luke Stewart to pop up to end the inning. This brought Earls back out to the mound and he began the seventh stanza by getting a groundout out of Skinner.
Edwards belted a base hit into right field in the ensuing at-bat, which ended Earls's time on the hill after he had faced 28 batters and surrendered seven hits, striking out four while allowing only two earned runs. Stephen Dodson took over the hurling duties and, after the Auburn center fielder swiped second base, Greinke popped up to register the second out of the inning.
Donaldson walked to bring Ben Jones to the plate. The Tiger pinch hitter represented the go-ahead run for the Plainsmen, but all he produced was a loud out as his fly ball to left field found its way into Cannady's glove. The Red and Black went three up and three down in the bottom of the frame.
The top of the eighth inning was not without its dramatics, as Smith singled and stole second, but his further progress was prevented by Brooks's flyout and by Bennett's and Dustin Spruill's strikeouts. The Classic City Canines produced some fireworks of their own in the home half of the frame, as well, commencing with Wyatt's leadoff walk.
This is always a good way to open an inning.
Peisel's ensuing flyout brought about a pitching change, as Butts sat down and was succeeded on the mound by Scott Shuman. The new Auburn hurler, who had a singularly unsuccessful experience, began by surrendering a double to Beckham. When Olson thereafter reached on an error and advanced to second, Wyatt came home to score.
Matt Cerione was sent to the plate to pinch hit for Lewis and Shuman hit him with a pitch. At that point, Justin Bristow was brought in to close out the inning and the fourth Auburn pitcher of the afternoon walked Stewart to bring home another Bulldog run before he finally struck out Robbins and Travis Parrott.
Joshua Fields came in to pitch the ninth inning. With a four-run lead and a reliable closer on the mound, the outcome was never really in doubt, so it was of little concern when Fields walked the second batter he faced after striking out the first. Greinke and Donaldson struck out in succession to render the home half of the inning superfluous.
Sunday's outing arguably was the Diamond Dogs' best game against quality competition all season long. The Red and Black committed only one error and, although the Classic City Canines were outhit, 8-7, they made their baserunners count, scoring in four of the last seven innings while shutting out the Plainsmen following the first frame. In short, this was exactly what Dave Perno's Bulldogs needed to restore hope to a season that all too recently seemed lost.