HOOVER — Judd Ward stared down his shot.
With a grip and rip, he left no doubt.
Ward blasted a two-run separation homer over right-center in the bottom of the seventh, and the Auburn baseball team pulled away to beat Tennessee 5-3 on Tuesday at the SEC Tournament — surviving and advancing to double-elimination activity after Ward’s homer pushed the Tigers from up 3-2 to up 5-2 in the late stages.
The sophomore stepped into the batter’s box then with one out down and one man on base, in a back-and-forth game between the eighth-seeded Tigers (33-23) and ninth-seeded Volunteers (38-19).
Auburn wanted a hit for the rally bid to help push the Tigers ahead. Ward did even better, smashing his 1-1 pitch out past the deep outfield at Hoover Met, sending the fans in orange and blue into a roar in a stadium buzzing in tournament atmosphere.
Auburn advances to face top-seeded Vanderbilt on Wednesday.
Tennessee scored one more run on Auburn in the top of the ninth, but Ward’s big shot in the seventh proved to be the difference.
“I’ve been watching this tournament since I was born,” said Ward, the left fielder from Russellville, talking into a microphone under Hoover Metropolitan Stadium as LSU and South Carolina sent the annual event there into the night outside.
“I love this tournament,” he said. “Coming out here and competing in it and being able to be a part of it, it’s one of the best feelings in the world — especially with the atmosphere we brought tonight with all the fans.
“It was awesome.”
Auburn and Vanderbilt (45-10) are scheduled to meet at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, pending the tournament’s rolling schedule.
Win or lose, the Tigers will play again Thursday. After Tuesday’s single-elimination round, the remaining eight teams enter the double-elimination portion of the tournament bracket Tuesday.
Vanderbilt stands among the top four seeds who rode a bye through Tuesday and into Wednesday, where a standard double-elimination tournament kick-starts with the eight remaining.
Tennessee struck early on Tuesday, going up 1-0 on Tigers starter Elliott Anderson in the top of the first inning. Auburn’s offense answered back in the bottom of the second, though, with Edouard Julien hitting a two-run double on a blooper to center that fell between the centerfielder, shortstop and second baseman in the in the field’s wide outfield. The wall at center stretches to 405 feet.
Rankin Woley and Matt Scheffler both scored on the play.
In the fifth, Tennessee started to crack Auburn’s pitching. Anderson, usually a reliever, made his third start in his career, but left in the fifth when Tennessee put runners on the corners. Auburn sent Will Morrison in for an at-bat to force a ground-out as the Tigers coaches played analytics, then moved to Bailey Horn. Horn saw the runner at third move home on a wild pitch, but got out without allowing another run.
When the game was tied 2-2, that’s when Ward made his first big mark on the game. Julien was at third with one out down when the leftie Ward sent a bunt down the first-base line, racing out a single on the play while Julien pushed across home for the go-ahead run.
If that was a mark, Ward’s homer in the seventh was an exclamation point.
“I wasn’t trying to do that, but I ran into one,” Ward admitted postgame. “It was awesome. It’s a great feeling,” he said, turning to smile to his teammates next to him on the press conference podium.
“We’ll take it,” Horn laughed.
Horn pitched on to the ninth. There, Tennessee’s Zach Daniels boosted a solo homer out to left to put the game back within two runs, before Auburn turned to closer Cody Greenhill.
The finish wasn’t without a drama — no surprise to Auburn head coach Butch Thompson and other regulars at the SEC Tournament.
Greenhill hit one batter to put the tying run at the plate. Then Tennessee’s Christian Scott hit what could’ve been his first home run of the season out high and deep to right — before it fell safely into Steven Williams glove at the warning track just short of the fence.
Auburn escaped, and moved on to live two more days at the SEC Tournament.
Auburn entered the tournament off an extra-inning win at LSU in its season finale which will prove valuable for Auburn in its NCAA Tournament bid. That win followed a walk-off win over highly ranked Georgia in that series the weekend before.
Tuesday, the Tigers won in dramatic fashion again — showing Thompson more of that intangible ability in showing how to win close games in clutch situations.
“The last two years, I thought we played consistently better in some areas. But I do sense a feel of character in our program, being able to fall back on a very solid foundation as we’re fighting through things,” Thompson said. “I think we’ve fallen on some character, and that’s really good to see for a ballclub.
“We have not caught fire, by any means, like winning 15 games in a row earlier in the year, but if they keep hanging around and keep building, hopefully we get to continue to play this season long enough to where we can take strides,” he went on.
“I think character has kind of taken us to this point and kept us alive to this point.”
For two more days, the Tigers live on in Hoover.