I hate Auburn.
I mean, I wanted the Diamond Dogs to do well in the three-game baseball series that began on the Plains on Friday evening because the outcomes of those games were important in the conference standings, but, even if the Red and Black were 0-48 instead of 32-16 and had nothing left for which to play, I'd still want Georgia to win because I love my alma mater and I hate Auburn.
The Lady Bulldogs' Jennifer Dahlgren broke the N.C.A.A. track and field record in the hammer throw on Friday by hurling a mallet 235 feet and six inches. That has nothing to do with Georgia baseball, but you have to admit that it's pretty impressive, nevertheless. (Photograph courtesy University of Georgia Athletic Association.)
Accordingly, the opening game of the Classic City Canines' set with the Plainsmen carried with it an atypically high level of anxiety, arising from my heartfelt contempt for all things Auburn. Any other opponent sporting the War Eagle's record would have been greeted with indifference here at Dawg Sports, at least insofar as the identity of the competing squad was concerned.
After all, the Tigers came into Friday evening's outing as the last-place team in the Western Division. Losers of six of their last 10 contests (including four straight setbacks), Auburn was 22-28 overall, 9-15 in league play, 7-10 against ranked competitors, and 5-7 against the S.E.C. East.
Georgia, meanwhile, arrived at Plainsman Park with a 13-11 conference ledger and an eight-game winning streak . . . but also a 9-8 road record and an Auburnesque 5-7 record against the opposite division. And this was, after all, Auburn, the perennial Georgia nemesis. Could the team with the S.E.C.'s second-worst mark at home (17-14) really pose a challenge to the surging Diamond Dogs?
The process of learning the answer to that crucial question commenced approximately at 8:00 p.m. Friday evening. One of the keys to Georgia's success during the Bulldogs' recent victory skein has been a propensity for building up an early lead and the series opener with the Tigers was no exception.
Jonathan Wyatt led off the top of the first inning by putting a pitch into left field for a base hit and he took second on a single from Joey Side. Auburn's Paul Burnside threw four straight balls to Gordon Beckham, loading the bases for Josh Morris, whose single scored Wyatt to make it 1-0 in favor of the visitors.
Bobby Felmy's subsequent sacrifice plated Side to pad the lead, then Jason Jacobs decided it was time to stop generating runs in small increments and proceeded to put one over the wall in left center field, making the score 5-0 ere the second out of the first inning had been recorded.
Bobby Felmy . . . No. 1 in baseball, No. 1 on his jersey, No. 1 in the hearts of the Bulldog Nation. (Photograph courtesy University of Georgia Athletic Association.)
The remaining five outs of the first frame followed in rapid succession, as Matt Olson popped up and Ryan Peisel grounded out to bring the home team to the plate and Mickey Westphal to the mound. Tyler Johnstone made it as far as a 3-2 count before grounding out and Luke Greinke survived only as long as the second pitch. Mike Bianucci swung at the first ball thrown his way, punching it in for a base hit, but he wasn't at first for long before Josh Donaldson fouled out to end the inning.
The Red and Black brought no offensive punch to the top of the second stanza and Westphal's first pitch of the bottom of the inning struck Andy Bennett, permitting him to become the second Auburn baserunner of the evening. A first baseman by trade, Bennett did not remain in his accustomed position for long, as Jeff Boutwell's strikeout was followed by a Russell Dixon double and a Justin Bristow base hit, which together brought Bennett around to score.
With the lead thus narrowed and the threat of additional scoring looming, Westphal sent Bruce Edwards back to the dugout on a called third strike, but, before he could secure the inning-ending third out, he gave up a single to Johnstone. This brought Dixon the rest of the way around and made it 5-2 as the Tigers' at bat was concluded with a Greinke flyout on the first pitch thrown to him.
The first two Bulldog batters of the third frame struck out before a measure of energy returned to the Red and Black offensive attack. Felmy singled to center field to give Georgia back the lead in hits (5-4) and a throwing error by the Auburn shortstop during the ensuing at bat allowed Jacobs to reach first base and Felmy to advance to third. Unfortunately, this bit of sound and fury signified nothing, as an Olson flyout brought down the curtain on the top of the inning.
She may believe in the church of baseball, but I'm starting to think of the national pastime as purgatory.
Whatever solace I had been brought by the Bulldogs' first-inning outburst was pulverized by Bianucci's leadoff homer to even up the hitting at five apiece and bring the score more nearly into alignment, as the Diamond Dogs clung to what began to appear an extremely shaky 5-3 advantage.
Later in the third, Boutwell jumped on the first pitch and turned it into a base hit, but the batters immediately preceding and following him between them recorded a lineout, a pop-up, and a groundout to limit the home team's scoring to a lone run, whereupon the Classic City Canines succeeded the Trailer Park Tigers at the plate with the hope of padding their imperiled lead.
Wyatt walked in the top of the fourth but neither he nor any other Bulldog crossed home plate, which enabled Auburn to claim its first lead of the night with a three-run outburst in the home half of the frame. Bristow swung at the first pitch, belting out a base hit to lead off the inning, then Edwards was hit by a Westphal pitch and a throwing error put Johnstone on base.
A Greinke single brought home one run, a Bianucci groundout plated another, and a Donaldson sacrifice tacked on a third, putting the Tigers in front by a 6-5 tally. At that point, the Diamond Dogs figured out that I couldn't take much more of this, so Georgia got to work in the top of the fifth frame, starting with a leadoff hit by Beckham, who turned a 2-0 pitch into a double.
Morris walked and advanced to second on a wild pitch, then Jacobs doubled down the left field line to bring home two runs, improve his R.B.I. total for the night to five, and reclaim a 7-6 advantage for the Red and Black. After a pitching change, Jacobs advanced to third on a passed ball. Olson and Peisel contributed doubles of their own to pad the lead by an additional pair of runs.
That is one ugly logo. (Image courtesy Fans Edge.)
Matters thereafter calmed down somewhat, as the score remained unaltered over the course of the next inning and a half. In the top of the seventh stanza, Georgia added an insurance run to take a 10-6 advantage when Felmy parked a base hit in right field, stole second, advanced to third on a fielder's choice, and came home on a Peisel groundout.
The Tigers took it right back in the bottom of the inning, though, as Boutwell singled through the left side and took second base on a wild pitch before being brought home by a Dixon double to left center field. Rip Warren relieved Westphal on the mound and caused Bristow to foul out, ending the inning with score remaining 10-7.
In the eighth inning, a pair of base hits by the Bulldogs got Wyatt as far as third base, but he advanced no farther, and the bottom of the frame got interesting as Edwards opened the proceedings with a leadoff single. Two flyouts later, Bianucci added another single, tying the hitting at 13-13 and moving the War Eagle center fielder over to third base. There he remained as Joshua Fields took over for Warren and coaxed Donaldson into letting a called third strike pass him by.
The ninth inning saw the Georgia third baseman put a two-out single into center field and take second base on a wild pitch, but the Red and Black second baseman grounded out to short on a full count to prevent Peisel from proceeding an additional 90 feet homeward. This carried the contest to a crucial juncture, as Georgia entered the bottom of the frame needing three more outs and Auburn moved into that selfsame stanza's second half requiring at least three more runs.
Our man Perno. (It was either that or another Mary-Louise Parker picture. I go back and forth over whether I made the right call.)
Bennett began the home half of the inning by working the count to 3-2, then taking the payoff pitch to left field for a loud out. I had no opportunity to derive a good vibe from this turn of events, however, as Fields promptly struck Boutwell with the second pitch thrown to the second batter of the frame, putting a man aboard at a most inauspicious moment.
I took heart (albeit to a limited degree) when Fields got ahead of Dixon in the count before the Plainsman right fielder lined out to his Bulldog counterpart. Bristow then stepped to the plate, representing the Tigers' last chance; he, too, put the 1-2 pitch in play and he, too, hit the ball directly to the Diamond Dog playing his position, flying out to short to end the inning and the game.
Winning pitcher Mickey Westphal now has gone 6-0 this season. Joshua Fields recorded his 11th save of 2006. Georgia's winning streak now stands at nine. The Bulldogs banged out 14 hits and scored 10 runs, while the Red and Black pitching staff allowed just one run in the final five frames.
I know better than to feel confident about tomorrow's game, but, for now, I will revel in tonight's victory and be grateful for such success as the Diamond Dogs have managed to salvage from a season that once appeared to have soured and now seems to be peaking precisely at the right moment.
And, by the way, I hate Auburn.