AUBURN — Butch Thompson believed with all his heart that Auburn had done enough to make a third consecutive NCAA Regional, and that was even before his team defeated Tennessee in the first round of last week's SEC baseball tournament in Hoover.
Yes, the Tigers finished two games under .500 in conference play, but that was against the toughest schedule in the nation. They played 15 games against the top eight national seeds in the NCAA Tournament and have an RPI of 19.
"We have a resume that should be solidified for a regional at-large," Thompson said. "Period.”
He was right, though he did have to wait a little while for confirmation — the Tigers were the final team announced during Monday's selection show. But the result was as good as the fourth-year head coach could hope.
Auburn earned the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Regional hosted by by No. 3 national seed Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Those teams will be joined there by Coastal Carolina and Florida A&M.
The Tigers will take on Chanticleers at 11 a.m. on Friday (ESPNU), with the Yellow Jackets and Rattlers following at 6 p.m.
"Not surprised. And, you know, it’s kind of bittersweet, because we’re going through a lot, our Auburn family, right now with a lot that’s happened in our community and our friends and our loved ones, they’ve been part of this journey and they’re not here with us today," Thompson said, referencing the longtime radio voice of Auburn baseball, Rod Bramblett, who died along with his wife in a car accident Saturday.
"We’re thankful to have our name mentioned. Georgia Tech, that will be a short ride right up I-85 for us, and a really good Coastal Carolina team that won a national championship recently. The opportunity to still get to play at this time of the year is exciting for our ballclub.”
Auburn is looking to continue its recent upward trajectory in the postseason. It came within one out of advancing out of an NCAA Regional in 2017, then swept a regional in and and nearly advanced to the College World Series out of a Super Regional in 2018.
That's easier said than done, of course. Advancing out of a regional requires winning three games before losing two, and the Tigers enter this one on the heels of consecutive losses to eventual champion Vanderbilt and semifinalist LSU; the former in run-rule fashion, the latter in a heartbreaking one.
Auburn hasn't won a series since May 3-5 against an Alabama team that missed the SEC tournament, and hasn't won three of four games since April 18-23 against Ole Miss and Jacksonville State.
But, as Thompson has repeatedly brought up this season, that was against the toughest schedule in the country. The Tigers' 58 games this season have been played against opponents with a combined winning percentage of .615 (1,954-1,222). Thirty-four of those 58 games, or well more than half, were played against teams that made the NCAA Tournament.
Auburn has a 15-19 record in those games.
"We do feel prepared," Thompson said. "Have we been at full strength? Have individual players played to the best of their ability? I think if you interviewed every one of them, they wouldn’t say so. But our team did something. Our team played the hardest schedule in America. Our team has persevered and still gets an opportunity."
The Tigers have never faced Coastal Carolina (35-24-1), a team that won the Sun Belt this season and won the College World Series only four years ago in 2016. Auburn is 4-0 all-time against Florida A&M, with the last of those meetings coming in 2017.
Auburn leads the all-time series with Georgia Tech 119-111-6, but lost twice to the Yellow Jackets in a home-and-home this season — 9-3 at home on April 2, and 11-6 in Atlanta two weeks later. The Tigers have played one Regional at Russ Chandler Stadium, going 1-2 in 2000.
"I think we owe Georgia Tech a little something," said junior shortstop Will Holland, who, like eight of his teammates, is from Georgia.
"Just to see our name called, that’s a huge opportunity. Especially to go to Atlanta, you know, being from Georgia, you love to go back to your hometown. I think we can be like a home team in that regional. We have a lot of Auburn fans in Georgia and it’s a short two-hour drive, so we know we’re going to get a lot of people. We’re really looking forward to it."
Auburn's struggles this season oscillated between a lack of pitching depth — Auburn has only four consistently reliable arms, and two (starters Tanner Burns and Jack Owen) have missed time due to injury — and a lack of offense — Edouard Julien and Will Holland have each gone through extended slumps, and Steven Williams has been in one throughout the entire season.
But the postseason offers a fresh slate.
"I have a little experience of knowing and playing against Georgia Tech there this year we already know what the field is like and how the ball carries," said Burns, who is healthy after missing the SEC tournament and will start either Friday or Saturday, with Owen taking the ball in the other.
"The hitters know what we’re doing and most of the pitchers have thrown on the mound. We know what it’s like. I’m excited.”