AUBURN, Ala. – The University of Tennessee baseball team (29-21, 12-13 SEC) beat No. 18 Auburn (33-17, 15-10) at its own game on Friday night, blasting three home runs to down the Tigers, 9-3, at Plainsman Park in Auburn, Ala.
The Volunteers have now won seven straight games, including six straight Southeastern Conference contests. It is just the third time in the last 40 years and eighth time in school history that UT has won six straight league matchups.
"Auburn has a good club, but we were about to get out to an early lead and had our guy on the mound," UT Head Coach Todd Raleigh said. "Stephen (McCray) gave up some hits, but he makes big pitches when he has to. He really knows how to pitch out of trouble. It's big for us to win on Friday night, but we still have a long way to go in this series. We need to come in tomorrow, focused and ready to go.
"Our confidence is really high right now. We feel like if we make a mistake we can overcome it and if we give up some runs we can come back and score some. We're in a good place because we're pretty good defensively, can hit the long ball and also steal some bases. Everything is going for us right now."
Once again, the Big Orange used the longball to cruise to victory, getting home runs from juniors Cody Hawn and Blake Forsythe and sophomore Matt Ramsey. Senior Stephen McCray, meanwhile, added another terrific performance to his ever-growing list of accomplishments on the mound, picking up his team-leading sixth win of the season with 7.1 strong innings. He allowed just three runs on seven hits, while striking out five against a prolific Auburn offense that entered the game with 96 home runs and averaging 9.27 runs per game.
"They are a good hitting club and hit a lot of good pitches that I made, but I was able to make some pitches when I needed to," McCray said. "Our defense played great behind me. I basically threw two pitches all night, but was able to keep them off balance, fortunately. We're really confident as a team. We are playing nice and relaxed and not trying to put pressure on ourselves."
Hawn now has five round-trippers in the last four games, becoming the first UT player since Shawn Griffin in 2008 to have home runs in four consecutive games. He also gains sole possession of fourth place on the Tennessee career home runs list with 35, placing him three behind Todd Helton for the most in school history. Forsythe, meanwhile, moves into a tie for eighth place with Rusty Ensor and Donnie Ross with a three-year total of 28. The Memphis, Tenn., native has been on fire as well with four dingers in the last four games, including two against Georgia on May 8.
Four different Vols had a pair of hits in the game on Friday, with both Hawn and Forsythe hitting their 13th home runs of the year and collecting three RBIs. Ramsey had a four-bagger and a single, while sophomore Zach Osborne added two singles, one of which brought home a run. Senior Steve Crnkovich closed out the contest, yielding just one hit and striking out two in 1.2 innings of work.
"Everybody is feeling more comfortable in the box right now," Forsythe said. "You win a few games, get some big hits and you just start feeling more comfortable. It's all about confidence. We've been playing good, we just need to keep it going."
The Orange and White wasted precious little time jumping ahead of Auburn, scoring three runs in the top of the first. Junior Khayyan Norfork got the game started by reaching on an error by Tiger shortstop Casey McElroy as he double-clutched on a groundball right at him. Norfork beat out the throw to first and moved up to second when Josh Liles hit a scorcher back up the middle that ricocheted off the pitcher to the second baseman for an out. Following a walk to P.J. Polk, Hawn launched a 2-1 pitch well over the wall in right-center to give the Vols a quick 3-0 lead.
Auburn would get on the board in the bottom of the third with a double, an error and an RBI single by Brian Fletcher, but Tennessee responded instantly with two runs of its own in the very next frame. Forsythe led off the top of the fourth with an absolute mammoth blast that cleared the 30-foot wall in left-center with plenty of room to spare to extend UT's lead to 4-1. After a fly out, the Orange and White then got three consecutive singles from freshman Chris Fritts, Ramsey and Osborne to bring home another run.
After McCray used a double play to get out of the bottom of the fourth in just six pitches, the Vols kept adding to their lead with another run in the top of the fifth. Walks to Polk and Forsythe, sandwiched around a single by Hawn, loaded the bases for the Big Orange with nobody out. A nice play by Auburn third baseman Dan Gamache kept UT off the board for a moment, as he forced Polk out at the plate on a grounder by Matt Duffy, but sophomore Charley Thurber drew a pinch-hit walk to give Tennessee a 6-1 advantage. That would be all they would get though as an infield pop-up and a groundout ended the frame.
Although the Tigers scored their second run on a sacrifice fly by Fletcher in the bottom of the fifth, UT continued to apply the pressure, answering by putting two more tallies on the scoreboard in the next half-inning. The Vols actually used some small-ball this time, using a pair of walks and a flyball by Polk to put runners on the corners with one out. Liles then stole second, forcing Auburn to intentionally walk Hawn to load the bases for Forsythe. The tactic backfired, however, as Forsythe looped a single into the left-center gap to bring two runners home.
Home runs by Hunter Morris and Ramsey to lead off the bottom of the eighth and with one out in the top of the ninth, respectively, accounted for the final two runs of the evening. Auburn threatened to score more in the eighth, putting runners on first and second with one out to chase McCray from the game, but Crnkovich made a key play, picking off McElroy at second for the second out. Although Tony Caldwell followed with a pinch-hit single, Crnkovich finished off the frame by getting Wes Gilmer looking on a 3-2 fastball on the inside corner.
Crnkovich then made quick work of the Tigers in the bottom of the ninth, sitting them down in order with pop ups to Hawn and Forsythe before striking out Fletcher swinging to end the game.
The two teams will return to the diamond at 4 p.m. ET on Saturday afternoon. Sophomore southpaw Steven Gruver (4-3, 5.51) will take the ball for Tennessee, while Auburn has yet to name a starter. For more information on Tennessee baseball, visit UTSports.com or follow @VolBaseball on Twitter.