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A spirit that is not afraid

Long balls lift Auburn over Gamecocks in game one

Led by three homers and a big day from Nate LaRue, Auburn's bullpen got all the support it needed to seal the 6-3 game one victory over South Carolina on Friday night.

Larue hit a monstrous home run in the third inning, but he didn't stop there. He gunned an attempted steal down to end the sixth inning and then stole his first collegiate base in the seventh inning, a pair of accomplishments that he has never, that he remembers, done in the same game.

When asked if he has caught a runner stealing and swiped a bag in the same game, he took no time to think, but he replied with a smile.

"I haven't stolen a base since high school, so I'm going to say no," LaRue said.

Ending a scoreless drought, Bobby Pierce hit a go-ahead solo shot in the seventh inning before Sonny DiChiara added on with a two-run, opposite-field bomb in the eighth to break things open.

Following starter Hayden Mullins' 5.1 innings of work in which he surrendered three runs (two earned) along with two walks and six Ks, the bullpen did the rest, going 3.2 shutout innings, including 1.2 by Blake Burkhalter with four Ks. 

Thompson said he really hoped for six innings from his starter, but he was pleased with how the middle of the bullpen was able to close the gap and set up Burkhalter to close it out.

Southpaw Carson Skipper earned the win amidst several sharp arms for the Tigers to improve his record to 4-0. He threw 1.1 innings and only surrendered one hit while striking out two.

His ability to set the table for Burkhalter by retiring the first batter of the eighth inning, a lefty, was huge.

Mullins, while giving up three of the Gamecocks four hits and the team's only two walks, did enough to keep his team in the game and pass it to a bullpen that was on their game.

"Tonight, [the bullpen] was fresh," said Auburn head coach Butch Thompson. "Each time they step on the field, your stuff is going to look different every day, and how you feel is going to be different every day, but that's probably the freshest I've seen them in weeks coming into tonight."

The game began as a pitcher's duel, with five combined strikeouts in the first inning, but that narrative quickly changed when each team got on the board in the next three half-innings, including a pair of long homers.

The second frame was one of self-destruction for the Auburn defense. Two errors and a hit batsmen resulted in a run for the Gamecocks, but things could've gotten out of hand much more. After a sacrifice fly scored USC's first run, a two-out bunt was disastrous for the Tigers. 

Picking up the bunt, catcher LaRue slung a bullet to first in hopes of getting out number three, but DiChiara whiffed on the ball and the runners advanced to second and third to keep the inning alive. In defense of DiChiara, the home plate umpire threw his hands in the air, as to signal a foul ball, but the ball was in fair territory and play resumed nonetheless.

Able to keep his composure after a frustrating play, Mullins went back to work and got the third out on a flyout to limit the damage.

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In the ensuing frame, Auburn's offense responded after three straight strikeouts ended its first inning. 

Cam Hill started things off by shooting a double down the first-base line. After two groundouts advanced him for a run, a walk extended the inning for LaRue. He did not waste the opportunity, as he slammed a 2-1 pitch 424 feet over the wall in left field to put Auburn up 3-1.

In the next two innings, however, USC continued to tack on, and Auburn was held silent after USC starter Brett Thomas was relieved by lefty John Gilreath, who was as sharp as they come.

"Who I tip my hat the most on that team tonight is Gilreath," Thompson said. "We had no idea and no plan for him."

After Mullins returned to form and set two straight down on strikes to start the third, the Gamecocks made more two-out noise with an Andrew Eyster moonshot straight out to where LaRue hit his homer, making it 3-2.

On another sac bunt, USC evened the score in the fourth after a HBP and a single put runners on the corners with one away. At this point, each side had three runs on only two hits. Seven players had reached on either an error, hit by pitch or walk to fuel both offenses. A pair of long balls by each squad was the only meaningful damage offensively, otherwise.

With a tied score and a new game, the defense tightened up on both sides, allowing no runs in six consecutive half innings. 

The Tiger bullpen was stingy following Mullins' departure with one out in the sixth, and a combination of Chase Allsup, Skipper and Burkhalter held the Gamecocks off the board while Gilgreath continued to confuse Auburn hitters with four scoreless innings, only allowing one hit on a single to DiChiara.

Gilgreath is only human, though, and Auburn left fielder Pierce proved it. He was visibly tired of the redundant scoreless run and the tie, and he smacked a line drive that seemingly rose at it went over the green monster in left field for the go-ahead solo homer. 

With a lefty scheduled to lead off USC's eighth inning, Skipper stayed on to maintain the lefty-lefty matchup. The move was successful, and he induced a flyout to mid-center field to get the first out.

Now needing seven outs to seal the win, the Tigers turned to their closer, Burkhalter. He seemingly effortlessly fanned two straight to send the Tigers to the plate in the home eighth with a chance to tack on some insurance runs. 

That is just what DiChiara did on the first pitch he saw. After Kason Howell walked to lead off the inning, DiChiara lined one to the opposite field that carried, carried and carried a little more and fell over the wall in right-center for his 12th long ball of the season. 

Burkhalter now had some leeway and a three-run advantage to work with going to the ninth. That proved to be more than enough, as he retired three in a row and fanned two more to clinch game one of the series for Auburn (27-12, 9-7 SEC) and record his ninth save of the season.

The series continues at 2 p.m. CST in game two tomorrow that will feature a pitching matchup of Auburn's Trace Bright (2-4, 4.17) versus South Carolina's Noah Hall (2-4, 4.91).

“We got this series off to a good start,” Thompson said. “This is a good win, but we’ve got to get back here tomorrow and be ready to play.”

Noah Griffith | Assistant Sports Editor

Noah is a senior in journalism from Salem, Alabama. He joined the Plainsman in August of 2021 after transferring in from Southern Union Community College.

Twitter: @NoahGG01

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