BY AARON BRENNER | email@example.com
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Conner Kendrick remained untouchable out of the Auburn bullpen, carrying his squad to a 6-3 victory over rival Alabama Tuesday night to extend an impressive streak in the MAX Capital City Classic archives.
“It was a blast," Kendrick said. "It was definitely the biggest crowd I have pitched in front of. It was something else.”
Auburn (9-3) has now defeated its in-state rival five years in a row in this event, which promoted awareness and fundraising for childhood cancer. Players and coaches from both teams had their heads shaved before the game as a gesture to kids battling cancer.
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Head coach John Pawlowski, for one, was left scratching his freshly-shaved head over what his new left-handed acquisition from Northwest Florida State College is doing for this team.
"I kind of lack for words the job that Conner Kendrick did," Pawlowski said. "What a masterful performance."
Kendrick fired six clean innings without allowing a hit, surrendering a single eighth-inning walk and striking out eight Crimson Tide (8-4).
“I just felt like I had command of more than one pitch tonight," Kendrick said. "I could throw them in different situations. I could go fastball, I could go change-up, and I had a pretty good curveball tonight. The mix of those pitches kind of helped out for me.”
On the year, Kendrick has thrown 16 1/3 innings (49 outs) and allowed four hits, with five walks against 22 strikeouts, without allowing a single run, earned or otherwise. Opponents are batting .077 against the junior, who has a win and two saves this year.
“Conner can do a lot of different things for us. Now we’ve just got to continue to find that niche where he can help us," Pawlowski said. "Today we brought him in a tough situation, and I don’t think anybody in here really thought that he would finish the game."
Starter Dillon Ortman had a 1-0 lead into the bottom of the fourth, but two walks, a double and an error on shortstop Dan Glevenyak later, Kendrick was called in to douse the fire. Another infield error allowed Alabama to take a 3-1 lead, but Kendrick got a fielder's choice and two strikeouts to limit further damage.
"We’re trying to fight our way out of that inning," Pawlowski said. "Did that by throwing three pitches for strikes, certainly.”
Auburn pieced together three runs in response in the fifth, helped by two Alabama errors.
"We’re just very fortunate we can overcome some of those mistakes," Pawlowski said. "We’re down 3-1, and our guys really never batted an eye. They just came back.
"Yeah, we’ve got to work to do, no doubt about it. A good win for us, we’ll take it and move forward, but certainly more work to do.”
With his team leading 4-3 into the final inning, first baseman Garrett Cooper pounced on a 3-1 hanging slider, slapping a bases-loaded, two-out single to left field giving the Tigers a pair of huge insurance runs.
“I was looking for something to hit and all I tried to do was put the bat on the ball," Cooper said. "Those insurance runs were huge for Conner, and he pitched a hell of a game. You can’t say enough about the job he did. It was a great win and a great atmosphere.”
An announced attendance of 6,911 fans filled Riverwalk Stadium on a brisk evening, with crimson and white intertwined with blue and orange. Marching bands and cheerleaders were on hand from both schools.
Auburn head football coach Gus Malzahn tossed out the first pitch as part of pregame ceremonies, just hours after appearing at Pro Day on campus.
He later said in a radio interview on the Auburn Sports Network he expects to produce his first two-deep at the conclusion of 15 spring practices, which starts March 27 and ends April 20 with the A-Day scrimmage at Jordan-Hare Stadium.