As their bus rolled along I-85 Wednesday morning, a flight to Omaha awaiting the Auburn University baseball team, three players from north Alabama talked about the ups and downs that preceded such a trip.
College baseball has come with specific challenges for Russellville grads Cody Greenhill and Judd Ward and Decatur grad Tanner Burns. But all three sophomores will get to enjoy the ultimate college baseball treat starting Sunday when the Tigers play in the eight-team College World Series.
Arkansas also qualified for the College World Series and features two Florence High products on its roster – Collin Taylor and Evan Taylor – though neither played in the Super Regional.
Each of the eight teams is guaranteed a second game – Auburn’s will be Tuesday against either Vanderbilt or Louisville. Anything beyond that is up to the Tigers.
“All the 6 a.m. workouts, going to class, practice, it’s all starting to pay off,” Ward said.
Auburn might have turned around its season in Atlanta, surprising many observers as a two seed by winning the four-team NCAA regional with an upset of Georgia Tech.
The Tigers advanced to last weekend’s Chapel Hill Super Regional and split their first two games against North Carolina.
A win away from the CWS, Auburn coach Butch Thompson gathered the team in right field late Monday morning before game three and reminded his players the message he’s given all year.
Knock down the door.
“This door that we’ve been working on knocking down,” Cody Greenhill recalled Thompson saying that day, “is hanging on the hinges.”
Leadoff hitter Judd Ward got the first swing at that door without even swinging his bat. Having gone 0-for-9 to that point in the series, he walked to open the game. Three teammates followed suit, forcing a pitching change, and Auburn led 5-0 before Ward batted again with two men on base.
He crushed a home run to right to give Auburn an 8-0 lead. Auburn was ahead 13-0 by the end of the first inning and cruised to a 14-7 win.
“It means a lot to me, but it’s baseball,” Ward said of breaking his mini-skid. “You can’t get hits every game. You can’t make big plays every game.”
That reflects the maturation of a player who better understands the reality of failure when playing such good competition. He hit .250 with three extra-base hits last year. Now he’s hitting .283 with 12 doubles, two triples and five home runs.
“Freshman year, it really got to me,” Ward said. “College, you’ve got to be mentally a lot tougher to play.”
In addition to his offense, Ward has become known throughout the SEC for his outfield assists. The left fielder’s throws to nab unsuspecting base runners at home plate or even first base have drawn praise and hype on social media. (Ward said accuracy, more than arm strength, is the key.)
Russellville coach Chris Heaps remembers a 2017 game at the beach against McGill-Toolen, when Ward threw out two runners and would have nailed a third if the opposing coach hadn’t realized what was happening and held a runner.
“He really prepares himself (defensively) before every pitch,” Heaps said, noting Ward also utilizes scouting reports well.
Heaps and Ward got a chance to talk Tuesday, and Ward has heard from plenty of other supporters in Franklin County as well.
“They’ve just been congratulating me and telling me to keep going,” Ward said.
A cheering crowd went anxiously silent just as Cody Greenhill threw the last pitch of his freshman season. It was the 11th inning of a decisive third game in the NCAA Super Regional round in Gainesville, and Florida’s Austin Langworthy was batting.
Langworthy hit Greenhill’s pitch deep to right field, and the ball bounced cruelly out of Steven Williams’ glove and over the fence.
The Gators were going to Omaha, and Auburn’s season was over.
“That really lit a fire under me,” Greenhill said.
He compared it to a loss he took against Faith Academy as a high school junior in the 5A state championship series. Though Russellville won that series, Greenhill was determined not to be beaten at Riverwalk Stadium again.
The Class 5A Player of the Year earned a win in the championship series rematch against Faith Academy as a senior, which led to another state title.
Less than two weeks ago, the right-hander threw three innings and allowed one run in an NCAA regional win over Georgia Tech.
But Greenhill could not fully erase the pain of last year’s Florida memory until the Super Regionals.
He earned a save in game one against host North Carolina and did not appear in the Tigers’ game two loss. In game three, he returned to the mound despite having only one full day of rest since his last outing.
“I wanted the ball,” Greenhill said. “And I wanted to get that out of my system.”
He held the Tar Heels to one run in 1 2/3 innings of a 14-7 beating. It sent Auburn to its first College World Series since 1997.
Greenhill believes the adversity he faced was part of God’s plan and says he’ll consider himself equally blessed whether Auburn wins the national championship or gets knocked out of Omaha quickly.
“Me and Judd, we just want to make Russellville proud. We’ve had so much support from them,” he said. “For me, honestly, I just want to put Russellville on the map.”
Heaps likes seeing “Russellville, AL” on ESPN graphics when Greenhill is on the mound or Ward at the plate, but what he likes more is when the two take pictures with kids and sign baseballs for them. Perhaps they are inspiring a new group of youngsters along with the Russellville kids who already look up to them.
“Judd and Cody, man, those guys are the epitome of hard work,” Heaps said. “They are leaders. They’ve become great young men. They’ve made great decisions. They live right.”
If the regional in Atlanta was the turning point for Auburn baseball, an individual turning point for Decatur grad Tanner Burns – not by choice – might have come just before that in the regular season finale against LSU.
Burns left that game in the fourth inning with tightness in his right (throwing) shoulder. He missed the SEC tournament and returned June 1 in the regional series against Georgia Tech, throwing three innings as a reliever. Five runs scored against him, but only one was earned.
He was on a pitch count in the UNC series but started game three. He had to wait a little longer to actually pitch as Auburn opened the game with a 13-run top of the first.
“That was a little weird,” Burns said. “I had to warm up three times!”
But he held the Tar Heels scoreless over two innings in the clinching win. He struck out three and walked only one.
Burns said he met with specialist Dr. James Andrews before the North Carolina series and said Wednesday he felt good and didn’t have any pain.
A starter all year until his injury, it’s unclear how Auburn might use Burns in the CWS. But he’s ready for anything.
“It’s the end of the year, so I’m going to give it all I’ve got,” he said.
That attitude is no surprise to Luke Lamm, who coached the 2017 Class 6A Player of the Year at Decatur High and now coaches at Huntsville.
“As good as he was, he was still asking questions,” Lamm said.
Burns could dominate high school hitters with his fastball but knew he needed to develop a changeup to thrive in college.
“Through watching him, (I’ve seen) he’s gotten a lot better at it. I don’t think he’s ever going to stop asking questions. … He’s going to keep getting better year in and year out,” Lamm said.
Lamm knows it will be difficult but is trying to arrange a last-minute trip to Omaha in between commitments this week and next. (“Omaha doesn’t have too many red-eye flights,” he lamented.)
All three local players said they'll have family members among their supporters present in Omaha.
Whether or not he’s there in person or watching on TV, Lamm said he’ll follow how Burns and the Tigers are doing and believes the big games Burns has pitched in over the years have prepared him well.
“I’m 100 percent confident in what he brings to the mound,” Lamm said.