No. 1 Tennessee dropped its second SEC game of the season, losing to No. 19 Auburn 8-6. The Vols and Tigers will now play a high-stakes game Sunday afternoon.
The loss came behind a less-than-stellar performance from both teams and a late push from Auburn to come out on top.
“I think we’re past the point of moral victories,” head coach Tony Vitello said. “But I think the fact that we were in a position to win the game – I don’t think either team can say they played well – but it was kind of a muck and grind game, and we didn’t do it as well as they did or as well as we needed too, but it was certainly there all nine innings.”
The Vols traded leads with the Tigers, going up early in the first, then down in the fifth, then up again in the sixth before a big ninth inning from Auburn.
“There’s a rhythm to the game, and tonight’s was kind of strange,” Vitello said. “Tonight there was really kind of no flow to the early innings and then it was choppy near the end too. By now we’ve kind of seen what every game looks like and the goal at the end is just to have one more than the other team.”
With two outs away and a runner on base, Auburn’s Kason Howell hit an RBI double to tie the game and survive at least another half inning. Then, after avoiding key hitter Sonny DiChiara with an intentional walk, Bobby Peirce hit a three-run shot to left field to give Auburn an 8-5 lead.
After Pierce’s home run, his bat flip landed in Tennessee’s dugout, sparking some emotion from the Vols, a moment that – whether spoken about or not – could fuel Tennessee’s emotions in Sunday’s rubber match.
“The game’s a little bit of a ways away,” Vitello said. “There’s words being exchanged and stuff like that, but this ain’t boxing. It’s baseball.”
Tennessee showed some life in the first at bat in the bottom of the ninth, as Cortland Lawson homered to lead off the inning and cut the lead to two runs.
“He wants to win,” Vitello said. “I don’t mean to oversimplify it, but if you’ve ever been around the guy he’s got a winning track record. He wants to win. He’s got the skillset, but the want-to is pretty dang good.”
Jorel Ortega got on base, but two flyouts from Jordan Beck and Drew Gilbert sealed the deal for Auburn.
Tennessee hasn’t had many Sundays that are meaningful for anything other than bragging rights. In fact, this is just the Vols’ second rubber match of the season.
The Vols came out on top in their rubber match against Alabama earlier in the season and Vitello is hoping his team can respond in a similar way on Sunday.
“With our skill set and our group mentality and the way these guys are together, if we’re in those positions often, I love our chances,” Vitello said.