*Courtesy Auburn Media Relations*
Tom Ka'ai's groundball, just out of the reach of diving Auburn second baseman Dan Glevenyak, gave Kentucky an unlikely 6-5 victory Sunday and left the Tigers needing a strong finish and some help to play beyond next weekend.
Through five innings, Auburn, an 8-1 winner on Saturday, was in full control of the rubber game with Kentucky at Cliff Hagan Stadium in Lexington. It started to come unraveled when starting pitching Keegan Thompson, who had given up just two hits in a dominating performance, was hit on the ankle by a line drive in the fifth inning.
After that, other than Ryan Tella's performance in his second collegiate pitching outing, almost everything went wrong. And the Tigers were left clinging to a thread of hope on making the 12-team Southeastern Conference Tournament field.
First-year Auburn coach Sunny Golloway said the Tigers have no choice but to push on.
"It's just baseball," Golloway said on his postgame radio show. "It's not good baseball, but it's baseball. We have to regroup. It's not going to always be this way. We are going to build a program."
No. 8 LSU visits Plainsman Park for the final regular-season series, starting Thursday. Auburn will go into the series in 13th place, needing to pass Georgia, Tennessee or LSU to play in Hoover the following week.
Here's how it can happen:
* If Auburn wins one game more than Georgia does against Kentucky, Auburn will advance to Hoover.
* If Auburn wins one game more than Tennessee wins against Florida, Auburn will advance to Hoover.
* If Auburn wins two games more than Texas A&M wins against Ole Miss, Auburn will advance to Hoover.
* In the longshot category, if Auburn sweeps LSU and Kentucky is swept by Georgia, Auburn will advance to Hoover.
Sunday's loss was the most damaging of the season. If Auburn had won, it would have gone into the final weekend ahead of Georgia and tied with Kentucky and Tennessee with the tiebreakers on its side.
"We know what we've got to do," Golloway said. "We know we let one get away. We had it in hand and just didn't finish."
Auburn fell to 27-25 overall and 10-17 in the SEC. Kentucky won the series two games to one and improved to 30-20 and 12-15.
After Thompson struck out slugger A.J. Reed to start the fifth, Michael Kuhn hit a line drive off Thompson's ankle for Kentucky's second hit. He retired the next two hitters. In the sixth, Thompson's ankle was clearly bothering him. He hit the leadoff hitter and gave up a ringing double. Golloway went to Jay Wade, who hit the first batter he faced and walked the second.
Shortstop Jordan Haecker booted a potential double play ball and, by the time the inning was over, Auburn was clinging to a 5-4 lead.
Kentucky loaded the bases with nobody out in the second. That's when Golloway went to Tella, who pitched for the first time in his college career, last week against Bethune-Cookman. Tella promptly struck out three straight to end the threat.
Kentucky tied it in the eighth on a solo home run by Austin Cousino. In the top of the ninth, Auburn loaded the bases with one out. But Blake Austin took a called third strike and Damek Tomscha grounded out.
Tella cruised through the bottom of the ninth, but Ta'ai's single with two outs ended it.
Golloway saluted Tella's effort, but he said Tella should have been getting his turns on the mound long ago.
"Great effort," Golloway said. "He's a guy that should have been pitching at Auburn from Day 1. He was one of the top pitchers in the state of California. For us to go to him and expect good things, I think is pretty normal. He did some special things today. He really competed hard."
Golloway said the line drive that hit Thompson changed the game.
"He wanted to try to go one more inning, but he just couldn't," Golloway said. "It was a really gutsy effort by him. He was in total command with a 5-0 lead. Two guys got on and we go to our bullpen. I think that was the turning point right there.
"We explained that even if the runners score, it's OK. We'll still be ahead 5-2. Get the hitter. Well, we hit the hitter and walked the next guy. They ended up scoring four runs. Everything else was pretty much a hard-fought contest."
Auburn outhit the Wildcats 10-8. Jordan Ebert had two hits and Anfernee Grier drove home two runs.
The Tigers play their last nonconference game of the season on Tuesday night against UAB at Plainsman Park.