AUBURN — Butch Thompson sat in Auburn’s baseball offices adjacent to Plainsman Park late Monday morning, not even an hour after the team had returned home to a crowd of fans and university personnel waiting to celebrate the NCAA Regional championship it had claimed the night before in Atlanta.
The fourth-year head coach spoke about how much that support meant to him, reflected on Bailey Horn’s standout performance on the mound in Sunday’s decisive 4-1 victory over Georgia Tech and pondered what the Tigers’ pitching staff might look like during a Super Regional against North Carolina, which begins Saturday in Chapel Hill.
Then Thompson leaned back in his chair and looked at the photo TD Ameritrade Park — the home of the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska — that stretches wall-to-wall and ceiling-to-floor in the team’s conference room.
“I want them to experience that,” he said, referencing his players.
Thompson has been there before, as an assistant coach for a Mississippi State team that finished runner-up to UCLA in 2013. Auburn has, too, though only once and not since 1997.
Most of the players on this team hadn’t yet been born when that Tim Hudson- and David Ross-led team made it to Omaha, but they have come tantalizingly close to matching their efforts over the past two years.
In 2017, the Tigers came within one out of sweeping a regional in Tallahassee, Florida, before host Florida State came out of the loser’s bracket to win two straight games. In 2018, the Tigers swept a regional in Raleigh, North Carolina, and took No. 1 national seed Florida to extra innings in Game 3 of a super regional before losing in heartbreaking fashion when Austin Langworthy’s walk-off home run in the 11th inning bounced off Steven Williams’ glove and over the wall.
Taking 2 of 3 from North Carolina this weekend to advance to the College World Series seems like the next logical step.
“We have a lot of veteran guys who have been there before. We know how to handle it. I think it’s good what happened last year, what it feels like to lose. I think we have a chip on our shoulder,” junior shortstop Will Holland said. “We just got to keep fighting and keep playing our game.”
The team that took the field for three games at Russ Chandler Stadium this past weekend certainly looked capable. It displayed explosive offense in a 16-7 drubbing of Coastal Carolina; clutch hitting when Williams launched a walk-off, three-run home run in a 6-5 win over Georgia Tech; and dominant pitching from secondary arms in the form of six shutout innings each from Richard Fitts and Horn.
The Tigers rarely had any of those things going for them during the latter half of the regular season, going 13-23 after a torrid 20-2 start. But as the men's basketball team that plays across Donahue Drive from Plainsman Park at Auburn Arena proved, anything can happen in a 64-team NCAA tournament that determines not which team is best, but which team is playing the best when it’s most important.
“All that’s behind us. Everything that everyone did this season is behind us,” sophomore left-hander Jack Owen said. “Right now, you look at Steven’s stats and they may be still down in the .240, whatever, .250, but right now he’s hitting .500 with 15 RBI’s or whatever it is in the postseason (10). It didn’t matter what he did. It didn’t matter what any of us did.”
Bruce Pearl can vouch for that. His team also went through a series of struggles, most notably its 27-point loss at Kentucky in its 27th of 31 regular-season games. Then it followed that loss by winning four straight to end the regular season, four straight to win the SEC Tournament for the first time since 1985, and four straight to reach the Final Four for the first time in program history.
Coincidentally, the victory that made the Tigers’ one of the last eight teams remaining in the country came against North Carolina.
Achieving the same result on the diamond will be no easy feat, and not only because Auburn has to win two games rather than one. The Tar Heels are even hotter than the Tigers are, having won seven straight games during a sweep of the ACC tournament and last weekend’s Chapel Hill Regional. They’re also used to this stage, having been to the College World Series last season and seven times in the last 13 years.
“We’ll see a deeper (pitching) staff and a little more talented bullpen than maybe what we encountered in the regional,” Thompson said — ace Tyler Baum (7-3, 3.95 ERA) was a second-round MLB Draft selection Monday, and relievers Hnsen Butler, Joey Lancellotti and Austin Love have combined for eight saves while pitching to ERAs no higher than 3.08.
But Auburn feels good about the position it is in. In a way, Thompson said, putting together a game plan for a super regional is easier than doing it for a regional or regular-season SEC series — the third game isn’t guaranteed, so do everything you possibly can to win the first two.
The Tigers will start Owen in Saturday’s opener (11 a.m., ESPN2) and Horn on Sunday (10:30 a.m., ESPN). Fitts, Cody Greenhill and Elliott Anderson are fresh and ready to pitch in high-leverage situations out of the bullpen. So too might ace Tanner Burns, who will not start this weekend due to continued shoulder troubles but could be available for a one-inning stint out of the bullpen.
If those pitchers perform to the level they’ve shown they’re capable this season, and Williams, Holland and the rest of the offense produce the way they did last weekend in Atlanta, Auburn will have a chance to go from looking at that photo of TD Ameritrade Park to looking at the real thing.
“We got to go walk into somebody’s park and do it. But we’ve done it before and we’ve been right there before, recently,” Thompson said. “I’m banking on and trying to get our guys prepared that it’s our time.”