*Courtesy Auburn Media Relations*
AUBURN, Ala. – Faced with the possibility of a season-wrecking sweep, Auburn’s baseball team came back swinging Saturday at Plainsman Park.
Auburn banged out 16 hits against flame-throwing Missouri starter Brett Graves. Auburn starter Michael O’Neal and reliever Jay Wade held Missouri at bay, and the Tigers salvaged the final game of their three-game Southeastern Conference series 7-3 before an announced crowd of 3,878.
After Missouri, which entered the series with five straight SEC losses, won 4-3 Thursday and 4-2 Friday. With a loss Saturday, Auburn might have dropped from first to last in the West Division.
First-year Auburn coach Sunny Golloway knew just how crucial Sunday’s game was. So did his players, especially the older ones.
“I can’t put it into words,” Golloway said. “Your back is to the wall. It’s almost like a death sentence to get swept in this league. The pressure we felt coming out today surpasses any pressure you have on a Friday night.”
Wade has seen the damage sweeps can do. Sweeps have kept Auburn out of NCAA regionals at least twice in Wade’s time.
“A sweep is as disheartening as it gets,” Wade said. “It kind of kills the program for a couple of days. A loss is hard, but a sweep is unbelievable, as far as what it does to you and the vibe in the clubhouse. It’s great to get a win. We’d like to win the series, but that’s a heck of a ballclub over there. They played well, and we did what we needed to do today.”
O’Neal, getting his first SEC start of the season, gave up two runs on eight hits in five innings and got the win to move to 3-2. Wade was dominant over the last four innings, giving up one hit and an unearned run to get his first save.
“I felt good in the bullpen,” Wade said. “By the third time we go through a lineup, we kind of know them in and out. Coach (Scott) Foxhall does a great job as far as telling us what we’ve got with the scouting report. We just went out and threw the pitches he told us to throw and we were successful.”
Golloway was impressed with O’Neal’s resolve, pointing out most of Missouri’s hits were groundballs that found holes. And then there was Wade, a senior getting his first chance at playing a major role.
“I don’t know what he’s doing, but it’s pretty special,” Golloway said. “He’s throwing down in the zone and he’s working quick. He spins it. He’s been the No. 1 guy in that bullpen consistently for us.”
Blake Austin had three hits, drove in two runs and scored one for Auburn. Ryan Tella also had three. Jordan Ebert had two hits, scored two runs and drove in a run. J.J. Shaffer had two hits, including a triple. Damek Tomscha and Daniel Robert had two hits apiece.
“I thought our approach coming out against a really good arm was really good,” Golloway said. “I still think their approach was really good. They hit a lot of balls on the ground. They really didn’t hit Michael hard. I thought Michael stayed pretty tough when they took the lead and battled his tail off.”
Auburn took a 1-0 lead in the first, fell behind 2-1 in the third and scored three in the fourth and three in the sixth to send Missouri home with a loss.
Golloway shook up his lineup in the absence of senior second baseman Dan Glevenyak, out with a hip injury. Ebert, last season’s starting second baseman, moved back to second from left field and Shaffer got the start in left field.
Ebert made two errors on difficult plays to his right, but he said he felt comfortable as the game went on.
“I think I’ve taken two groundballs in the last four or five months,” Ebert said. “I took a couple in pregame. I made two errors, but I felt a lot more comfortable than I thought I would. If that’s what this team needs me to do, I feel like I can do it with a few more reps in practice.”
Golloway said he learned something about his team in a difficult situation.
“I complimented them on their character,” Golloway said. “Their backs were to the wall.”
Auburn plays Samford at Plainsman Park on Tuesday and goes to Ole Miss for an SEC series starting Friday.