ATLANTA — Bailey Horn never thought he was coming out of the game. It didn't matter that he had just sat through a two-hour rain delay after throwing a near-season-high 46 pitches through the first three innings, nor that he was just about 15 months removed from Tommy John surgery.
"I knew there was work still to be done," the sophomore left-hander said.
There might be no statement that sums up what happened at Russ Chandler Stadium this weekend better than that one. Butch Thompson said it after the SEC Tournament: It would have been pretty easy for Auburn to quit, say "this has been too hard for too long," and start planning for summer.
Every game during the latter half of the season 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. A 20-2 start faded into a 13-23 finish.
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.
Both are firsts in program history.
"I don’t know how many Regionals I’ve been a part of as a servant, as an assistant coach. I know I’ve been to three as a head coach now," Thompson said. "But of the 13 or 14, this is probably the most special weekend for me personally and professionally with this group of young men and how they rose up."
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 standout pitching, incredible defense and timely pitching on Sunday.
Start with Horn. If you had told Thompson on Friday that the JUCO transfer out of West, Texas, would pitch better than staff leaders Jack Owen and Tanner Burns, he might have asked you how close the Tigers came to elimination. The left-hander was making just his third start of the season. He entered with a 7.56 ERA.
When he faced the Yellow Jackets at this park in an April 16 loss, he gave up two runs in 1 1/3 innings on the mound.
"He's just persevered," Thompson said.
Horn was dominant. He threw three scoreless innings before the rain delay, then came back out and threw three more after despite the two-hour layoff. It was the longest outing of his season in terms of innings and pitches (88). He allowed only two hits, walked one, and struck out four.
It looked like his night might be over when pitching coach Steve Smith strolled to the mound after he issued that lone base on balls to Jackson Webb to lead off the bottom of the sixth inning, but Horn finished that frame, too, with help from Judd Ward's tremendous 7-3 double play on a line drive that nearly reached the warning track in left field.
"I knew I had it in me," Horn said. "It’s taken some time over the year. I believed in our team. We all believed in each other. The game’s bigger than just one person. And we knew we could come out and win this."
Of course, given the way things have gone this weekend, that win would not have been complete without Williams, who was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Regional after going 6 for 13 with two home runs, 10 RBIs and three runs scored over three games.
After hitting his walk-off home run to right field on Saturday, the sophomore right fielder followed a Rankin Woley RBI single with a two-run double into the left-field corner in Auburn's three-run top of the sixth inning.
Ryan Bliss added insurance with an RBI single in the ninth, and Cody Greenhill did the rest, allowing only one hit (a seventh-inning solo home run to Tristin English) over three innings to record the save in his first appearance of the tournament.
“That was probably the most complete game we’ve played all year, all-around." Williams said. "Bailey came out with a lot of energy and pounded the zone and got a lot of outs. Our offense, we had quality at-bats throughout the whole game pretty much. That late insurance run, that was huge. I think we can build off this going into North Carolina.”
Throughout this season, Thompson, privately, questioned whether this team was capable of what it did this weekend in Atlanta. He would sit in his car trying to figure out, "What does tomorrow look like?" and stand in the shower going, "What’s my message? What’s my theme? How can I pull myself up and get these guys circled back up the next day?" He said it happened probably 30 or 35 times.
But Auburn never quit. The Tigers are one of 16 teams left standing in the country, and now all that stands between them and being one of the eight teams that makes the College World Series is North Carolina.
Where have we seen that before?
"The guys just really hung in there," Thompson said. "At the end of the day, you can't pull yourself out of a slump; you've got to go the other way. At some point in time, you've got to, you know — you're not allowed to be sad anymore till the season's over. Till you play your last pitch, you're not allowed to be sad.
"I don't think they heard that right out of the gate. And I think it took time to really believe in that concept. So, a credit to them, because individually, they were going to have to find their own way, and I think they finally just circled the wagons enough to take care of themselves, and then collectively come together as a group.
"It’s a good lesson for me, that if you’ll just hang with some young people here and stay with them, they can do some amazing things.”