CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Butch Thompson firmly believed that North Carolina's pitching staff became harder to hit when it got into its bullpen.
Relievers Austin Love, Joey Lancelloti and Hansen Butler entered this weekend's Super Regional with 18 wins and eight saves between them while pitching to sub-3.10 ERAs. Getting an early lead would be imperative.
So when Auburn didn't, and it went into the eighth inning trailing by three runs at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the fourth-year head coach probably didn't love his team's chances.
But there's something different about this particular Auburn team. It does not quit. Not after losing 21 of 33 games to end the regular season, not after it was eliminated from the SEC Tournament on a walk-off wild pitch, and not when it trailed Georgia Tech by three runs with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning in the second game of an NCAA Regional one week ago in Atlanta.
This Auburn team rallied to rout North Carolina, 11-7, in Game 1 of a Super Regional on Saturday in Chapel Hill. It tagged those three pitchers for five runs in the eighth inning and the rest of the bullpen for four more in the ninth. Rankin Woley delivered the go-ahead hit in the seventh, drilling a three-run double off the top of the wall in center field. It was just inches shy of being a grand slam.
The Tigers are one win away from going to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, for the first time since 1997. Game 2 in the three-game series is set for 10:30 a.m. today (ESPN).
"I don’t think we panicked," Thompson said, "and I think that gave us a chance."
Auburn's climb out of that three-run hole began in the seventh inning, when Love replaced starter and recent second-round MLB draft pick Tyler Baum after 6 1/3 strong innings during which he allowed four hits, walked none and struck out seven. The only blemish on his line was a two-run home run off the bat of the hot-hitting Steven Williams in the top of the fifth inning, and the Tar Heels got one of those runs right back against Tigers starter Jack Owen in the bottom half.
Love inherited Edouard Julien on first base after a one-out single, let him go to second on a wild pitch, struck out Woley, then walked Williams to load the bases. The freshman right-hander came back from down 3-0 against Matt Scheffler to get him to fly out and end a nine-pitch at-bat for the third out, but it looked like getting Baum out of the game put Auburn onto something.
"I think like Coach said, there's no panic in our team," said junior designated hitter Conor Davis, who recorded the team's first hit of the game in the fourth inning. "The biggest thing for us just not panicking. We believe we can hang into every game. We could be down five or six runs in the ninth and still think we're right there."
It can be a nerve-racking way to play, Thompson said, but it worked for Auburn when Williams hit a walk-off three-run home run to beat Georgia Tech last week, and it worked again Saturday.
The game-changing rally began with one out in the seventh, when Lancellotti replaced Love with a runner on first. He allowed an RBI double to Davis and threw a wild pitch that allowed Ryan Bliss to score from third. A walk to Will Holland forced longtime North Carolina coach Mark Fox to go back to the bullpen after three batters faced and zero outs recorded.
Butler proved no better, walking Julien on five pitches before Woley unloaded on a 2-2 curveball.
"His curveball is his pitch, and he's thrown it 1-0, 92 percent of the time," Woley said. "So I fought a couple off and almost swung at that high pitch, but I knew he was gonna come back to it, especially with runners on. It was down, that's where I like it, got a bat to it, and you know, a pretty fun swing."
All told, North Carolina's three best relievers combined to allow eight runs on five hits and two walks over just two innings on the mound. Butler was charged for two more in the ninth, when Holland hit a sacrifice fly and Julien hit what proved to be a crucial two-out, three-run home run over the right-field wall.