ATLANTA — There's no question, Butch Thompson said, that when the ball came off Steven Williams' bat in the bottom of the ninth inning Saturday, every Auburn fan didn't feel for a second like the late Rod Bramblett was inside the radio booth, like he was calling the action the same way he had for the last 27 years.
It was his voice you heard when David Ross hit a walk-off home run to beat Florida State in a 1997 NCAA Regional. It was his voice you heard when Creede Simpson hit a go-ahead blast against Clemson at Plainsman Park in 2010.
It was his presence Thompson felt when Williams belted an 0-2 pitch from Connor Thompson for a no-doubt, three-run, walk-off home into the trees beyond the right-field wall at Russ Chandler Stadium, lifting Auburn to a 6-5 victory over Georgia Tech — Auburn's first walk-off blast in the NCAA Tournament since Ross' heroics all those years ago.
For the third consecutive season, the Tigers have advanced to an NCAA Regional final without a loss. Two years ago, they lost two straight to Florida State. Last year, they blew out N.C. State for the sweep. On Sunday, they'll play the winner of an 11 a.m. CT game between Georgia Tech and Coastal Carolina — two teams they have already beaten — at 5 p.m. and will have two chances to win and advance to a Super Regional.
"I'm just really happy that we can come out on top and in that kind of fashion," Williams said.
Williams rounding the bases and leaping into a crowd of teammates at home plate, getting drenched with a water cooler during a postgame interview — all of that felt improbable up until the moment the ball left his bat. Saturday's game felt for a long time like it ended in the top of the second inning, when the Yellow Jackets turned a series of Tiger mistakes into four unearned runs.
A hit batter with an 0-2 count. A bloop single down the left-field line that fell between. A fly ball to right field that bounced off Williams' glove for a crucial error, which let a run score. A sacrifice fly that let in another. A ground ball that bounced off pitcher Tanner Burns' foot and ricocheted into no-man's land for an RBI base hit. A wild pitch. A run-scoring double off the wall in right-center field.
Burns lasted allowed five runs and lasted only three innings in what was his first start since May 18 due to lingering shoulder soreness, and Butch Thompson said after the game that he's now to a point where he would be "shocked" if the team's sophomore ace starts again this season regardless of how deep Auburn goes into the postseason.
"I feel like I have pulled him two or three times now. I got a great report from Dr. Andrews, but my compassion for him and how great I think he is, that last 10 percent is gone. He’ll work hard for me for two more weeks and probably try it again, maybe it’s a relief appearance," the coach said. "But for me to say ‘Hey, this is your ballgame we’ve got to have this,' I don’t think I’m interested in that. I know he’s giving me his whole heart, but that stuff’s just not the same."
The way Connor Thompson was pitching, it looked all night like those five runs would be enough. The junior left-hander gave up a solo home run to Ryan Bliss in the first inning and allowed Kason Howell to score from third on his throwing error in the sixth, but other than that, he was dominant. There was a time when a complete game with fewer than 100 pitches thrown felt realistic, if not probable. After all, he had already done it three times before.
Butch Thompson said he had the reason why jotted down in his notes — "‘We’ve got four double plays." That was a season-high hit into for Auburn and a season-high turned for Georgia Tech. They ended the second, third and fifth innings, erasing three of the team's 11 hits.
"He was just throwing a lot of pitches low in the zone, even his fastball. Everything he has has downward tilt," Williams said. "He was executing his pitches, and I give a lot of credit to him; he pitched really well."
Williams was one of two heroes for the Tigers on Saturday. The first is Richard Fitts. Thompson made no secret of his desire to go to standout closer Cody Greenhill in what he felt like was a must-win game, but with his team down four by the time Burns finished the third inning, he went to the freshman right-hander instead.
Fitts was magnificent in his NCAA Tournament debut, allowing just four hits while striking out four over six scoreless frames of relief. Almost as important as his efforts on the mound was what it meant for the rest of the pitching staff — the Tigers still have a fresh Greenhill, as well as Bailey Horn and Brooks Fuller, available to pitch Sunday.
"I was a little bit more nervous than usual, but I knew that I had everybody behind me," he said. "I know Steven was going to be behind me the whole time, and just everybody, even with the errors, we still bounced back, and you could just tell with everybody that they were locked in, they were ready to play. You know, we had 11 hits tonight. That’s going to kind of get overlooked just because of Steven’s home run at the end, but the hitters were fighting all game and I was just trying to give our team the best chance to win, every inning, every pitch."
That chance finally came in the bottom of the ninth, long after everyone outside the Auburn dugout thought it would. Conor Davis reached on an error. Will Holland was hit by an 0-2 pitch. When Matt Scheffler popped out and Edouard Julien struck out, Thompson thought it was over — "I just didn't feel great," he said — but then Rankin Woley laced an RBI single through the left side, making it a 5-2 game and prompting a mound visit from pitching coach Jason Howell.
"He calmed down and told me just to go after Steven and give him my best shot and we were fine. And to trust my stuff," Connor Thompson said as he fought back tears. "I had everything working tonight. It just didn’t work out."
Williams, now 13 for 21 with three home runs, 13 RBIs and 10 runs scored in five career Regional games games, made sure of it.
"Stretch, pitch, driven deep right field," Paul Ellen said on the Auburn Sports Network radio call. "That ball is back. That ball is gone! It's a home run! It's a home run for Steven Williams, and Georgia Tech goes to the loser's bracket. Auburn will be playing tomorrow night."
Almost just like Bramblett used to say.