ATLANTA — It would have been pretty easy for Auburn to quit, to say, simply, that "this has been too hard for too long."
Every game during the latter half of the regular season and SEC Tournament felt like a grind. The Tigers lost key players to injury, had hitting stars go through extended slumps and suffered multiple heartbreaks along the way.
After not winning three straight games since a 15-game winning streak ended on March 22, and after not winning three out of any four games since the middle of April, could they really go on the road to Georgia Tech and win a Regional against the No. 3 national seed.
Well, yes. A 4-1 win over the Yellow Jackets on Sunday confirms it.
For the second straight year, Auburn swept the opening round of the NCAA Tournament in three games. For the second straight year, it will go to a Super Regional, this time in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, against the No. 14 national seed Tar Heels.
The Tigers did it in every which way. With an 18-hit offensive outburst in a 16-7 bludgeoning of Coastal Carolina on Friday. With a walk-off, three-run home run off the bat of Steven Williams in a 6-5 win over Georgia Tech on Saturday. With a pair of standout pitching performances from Bailey Horn and Cody Greenhill (plus some incredible defense from left fielder Judd Ward) on Sunday.
Horn's night looked like it was done. Had to be. He was almost perfect through three scoreless innings on the mound, but there was no way that Auburn was going to bring him back after a two-hour rain delay. Not 15 months after he underwent Tommy John surgery.
But when tarp came off the field and the teams emerged from where they were waiting out the storms, the sophomore left-hander was the only pitcher warming up in the bullpen. Butch Thompson and Steve Smith brought him back.
Horn added three scoreless innings after the rain delay to the three he threw before. He allowed only two hits and a walk while striking out six to earn the win on the mound. Greenhill allowed nothing more than a solo home run in a three-inning save.
Ward had a hand in the success of both, starting a 7-3 double play from near the warning track in left field after a leadoff walk in the sixth, then making a leaping grab to rob Nick Wilhite of extra bases to lead off the ninth.
Auburn put forth all the offense it needed needed with three runs in the top of the sixth inning, when Rankin Woley followed an error with an RBI single and Steven Williams continued his postseason tear with a two-run double down the left-field line. Ryan Bliss added insurance with an RBI single in the top of the ninth.