Off The Bat: Auburn Sends SEC Message With Florida Sweep

Auburn celebrates its walk-off win Sunday (Photo courtesy of Auburn Athletics)

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In Off The Bat, Teddy Cahill wraps up the weekend in college baseball and looks ahead.


AUBURN, Ala.—Long after Auburn had finished its sweep of Florida with a 6-5 walk-off victory Sunday, the Tigers mingled with their fans, many of whom remained in Plainsman Park to savor the victory. From atop the parking garage next to the stadium, one fan chanted "War Eagle" and waved a broom.

It was a picture-perfect scene after a tumultuous 18 months on the Plains. After Sunny Golloway was fired in September 2015, Auburn went 23-33 last season and missed the Southeastern Conference tournament. Now, with 20 first-year players on the roster, the Tigers are 17-5 and reinvigorated.

Auburn's sweep of Florida (13-8), which entered the weekend No. 5, was its first since 1987 and gave it a statement series victory at the end of a 22-game homestand to open the season.

Coach Butch Thompson, who was hired in October 2015, said the highlight of the weekend for him was seeing his players' faces after pinch hitter J.J. Shaffer raced around from second base in the ninth inning Sunday to score on righthander Frank Rubio's error to give the Tigers their first walk-off win in more than two years. Their celebration spilled out from the third base dugout into right field.

"Those are the little moments I take that you don't need a penny for," Thompson said. "Just to see that look on their face, if only for a moment. Hopefully we've got some good things coming in the future, but nobody can take that moment from me, seeing those guys run on the field there. And I do cherish that today, that was the highlight of the weekend to see them completely finish the task. This was just two teams battling it out and trying to fight to win a ballgame on a Sunday when you've been at this for three consecutive days."

The series had promised strong pitching all weekend and largely delivered. Behind ace Keegan Thompson, Auburn routed Florida, 14-3, Friday, becoming the first team to beat righthander Alex Faedo, a first-team Preseason All-American, this season. Thompson wasn't overpowering, sitting in the upper 80s to low 90s with his fastball, but mixed his four-pitch arsenal well and pounded the strike zone, showing the savvy of a redshirt junior.

Saturday's matchup of righthanders Casey Mize and Brady Singer, both potential 2018 first-round picks, went more to script and the Tigers edged the Gators, 2-1. Even Sunday provided a strong matchup on the mound, as Florida turned to righthander Jackson Kowar, another potential first-rounder next year, while Auburn countered with touted freshman righthander Davis Daniel. While Kowar delivered a quality start and Daniel was knocked out of the game in the third, the Tigers were still able to find a way to win.

After 15 years in the SEC, Butch Thompson knows how tough it is to win and said he was thankful the Tigers were able to pull out a couple of one-run wins, the kind of game they struggled in last year.

"You can play great and win, you can play bad and win, and—this has happened to me more than any other college experience I've had in 15 years in the SEC is—you can play good and lose," Thompson said. "Yesterday's ballgame could have went either way. These last two days, they got two quality starts that they can hang their hat on. And that's why you know that Florida goes nowhere because they've got a chance to pitch and defend every day and those are the tenants of being able to play baseball well. They're not going anywhere. I'm just thankful the ball bounced our way consecutive days."

Florida's defense, normally one of its strengths, faltered at Auburn. The Gators made four errors in the series (three Sunday) after committing just 11 in the first 18 games of the season. The defensive miscues and Florida's ongoing struggles at the plate (it is hitting .240/.326/.368 as a team) made for a bad combination.

Coach Kevin O'Sullivan said the Gators' missed offensive opportunities Saturday and uncharacteristic defensive miscues Sunday were frustrating, but they have to move past the losses and regroup. Florida hosts Stetson on Tuesday, and No. 4 Louisiana State comes to Gainesville for a weekend series.

"It's the first of 10 series, there's not much we can do," O'Sullivan said. "We can't press rewind. It wasn't a very good weekend for us. It is what it is. It's very fine. There's not a whole lot of room for error in this league."

Auburn was ready to take advantage of Florida's mistakes. The Tigers have reeled off seven straight wins, but are less than two weeks removed from a 14-3 home loss to South Alabama. They still have tests they will have to pass, including this week when they will hit the road for the first time. Auburn travels Tuesday to Georgia Tech and will visit Georgia for a weekend series.

But, to this point, Thompson said he is pleased with his team's growth and development.

"I think we learned how to win, I think we learned how to cough up a lead late, a team whipped us," Thompson said. "All those experiences build a ball club. I think we also got seven shutouts that also told us we can do this. Now, we've got something on the resume that says, 'Man, we can play.' And we've still got some lessons to learn.

"Can we play on the road? I don't know. But I like the lessons we've learned as far as being at home, building a routine, connecting to one another, figuring out our park with 20 new players. I'm glad the way we set it up, it's worked out so far."


Southern Miss Starts CUSA Play With Road Sweep

Opening weekend of Conference USA play provided an early-season showdown between Louisiana Tech and Southern Mississippi, two of the four teams from the conference to advance to regionals last season.

Going on the road to Ruston, La., where the Bulldogs were 10-1 this season, was a tough assignment for the Golden Eagles, last year's CUSA tournament champions. But Southern Miss (16-4) answered the challenge, sweeping Louisiana Tech (15-5) for its first sweep to open conference play since 2006. Southern Miss extended its winning streak to seven games, its longest since winning the first seven games of last season.

Coach Scott Berry said going into the weekend he probably would have said the Golden Eagles didn't have a chance to sweep the series. But after winning the first two against the Bulldogs, his team came out ready to finish the sweep.

"(Sunday) was a new opportunity with something special that was added on," Berry said. "We worked real hard to put ourselves in that position. Our guys really responded well to it.

"Hats off to our guys for staying focused and finishing the job that we had set out to do."

After winning a taut, 5-2, pitchers' duel Friday, the Golden Eagles jumped out to early leads both Saturday and Sunday. But in both games, Louisiana Tech battled back, forcing Southern Miss to grind out a 13-9 win Saturday and an 8-5 win Sunday.

"They were all well played, but Games 2 and 3 had some tests for us to hold on and win those," Berry said. "I'm real proud of the way our guys came out and handled the challenge of going over there and playing a team playing well."

Southern Miss is playing well itself. It hasn't lost since March 10, when Xavier and ace lefthander Zac Lowther edged out a 2-0 win. Its only series loss came the weekend before at Louisiana-Lafayette.

Now, as CUSA play begins, the Golden Eagles again look like one of the best teams in the conference. Third baseman Taylor Braley is back healthy this season after missing the final two months last year after suffering a knee injury. He has anchored the lineup (.366/.495/.690, 6 HR) and pitched well as a midweek starter (1-0, 3.38). On the weekends, lefthander Kirk McCarty (3-2, 3.26) and righthander Hayden Roberts (2-1, 3.30) give Southern Miss a solid 1-2 punch at the front of its rotation. Bullpen ace Nick Sandlin (4-0, 0.00, 2 SV) has again been excellent, and freshman outfielder/righthander Matt Wallner (.309/.440/.515, 4 HR; 2-0, 0.00) has quickly become a weapon both in the lineup and out of the bullpen.

Wallner, a Minnesota native, was originally signed with North Dakota before its program was cut last spring. On a team primarily made up of players from the Deep South, Berry said Wallner has fit right in.

"He's a special, special kid on and off field," Berry said. "He's got a chance to be really good, his ceiling is really high. He's a great teammate. He fits in very well with us."

The Golden Eagles are soaring again this season and are off to their best start since 2011. Now, Southern Miss will look to carry its momentum into another big week. It takes on Mississippi State in Pearl, Miss., at the home of Double-A Mississippi on Tuesday and then hosts Marshall (10-7), the conference runner-up last season.


Eight for Omaha

Cal State Fullerton, Florida, Louisiana State, Louisville, Oregon State, South Carolina, Texas Christian, Texas Tech

The start of conference play around the country the last two weekends has caused some significant shakeups in the rankings and in this field. I struggled with what to do with Florida and Florida State following their disappointing weeks. Both teams are very talented, but aren't firing on all cylinders right now, particularly at the plate. Offensive issues are a bigger problem for Florida State, which doesn't have the kind of elite starting pitching Florida runs out on the weekend. So, for now, Florida stays, Florida State comes out and Texas Tech, which is rolling again this season, enters.


Eye-Catchers

Five players or programs who stood out this weekend.


Mike Appel, rhp, Central Connecticut State: Appel threw a no-hitter Saturday in a 2-0 win against Mount St. Mary's, the sixth no-hitter of the season around the country. The sophomore struck out three batters, walked one and hit two to improve to 1-2, 3.80.

Antoine Duplantis, of, Louisiana State: In Friday night's wild 22-9 victory against Georgia, Duplantis set an LSU single-game record with six hits. He finished the weekend 8-for-13 and scored six runs. The sophomore is hitting .375/.421/.500 with eight stolen bases this season.

Mercer: The Bears continued their strong start to the season with their biggest week yet: a win Tuesday at Georgia followed by a sweep at East Carolina. Mercer (17-4) has won nine of its last 10 games and has not lost a weekend series this season.

Eli Morgan, rhp, Gonzaga: Morgan has been fantastic this season as Gonzaga's Friday night starter and delivered another gem this week against Pacific to open West Coast Conference play. He struck out 13 batters in a one-hit shutout to improve to 3-1, 1.95 with 54 strikeouts and seven walks in 37 innings.

Xavier: A walk-off, two-run home run from Joe Gellenbeck in the second game of a doubleheader Sunday gave the Musketeers (10-10) a sweep against Ohio State (9-11), becoming the first in-state opponent to sweep the Buckeyes in a three-game series since 1975. Xavier's dramatic victory also came in its home opener after spending the first four weeks on the road.


Looking Ahead

Three weekend series we're most excited for

(9) Arizona at (2) Oregon State: On a loaded weekend around the country, the Pacific-12 Conference produces a Top-10 showdown. The teams are a combined 32-5 (.865) this season and one will earn a marquee series win in the second weekend of conference play.

(21) Oklahoma State at (3) Texas Christian: Two of the Big 12 Conference's three College World Series teams from last season will meet for an early-season showdown. For the Cowboys (14-6), it will be their first conference series of the season. The Horned Frogs (14-5) opened Big 12 play last weekend with a series win against Kansas and will be eager to build on that success.

(4) Louisiana State at (13) Florida: Two preseason top-five teams meet for a critical early-season SEC showdown. Florida (13-8) is looking to get back on track after getting swept at Auburn. LSU (16-5) comes to Gainesville for its first road series of the season and will try to build on its 3-0 start to conference play.


Two weekend series you shouldn't overlook

(5) Cal State Fullerton at Long Beach State: Fullerton (14-5) is rolling, having won 10 of its past 11 games, nine of which have come against teams that made regionals last year. Beach (10-8) is off to an up-and-down start, but has won four straight. The two teams will meet in Long Beach this weekend for a non-conference series to renew one of college baseball's best rivalries.

(23) Michigan at Maryland: Michigan (15-4) has started the season strong and will travel to Maryland (12-6), the preseason Big Ten Conference favorite, to start conference play. The Terrapins got off to a slow start this season, but have won 11 of their past 12 games.


One midweek game to keep an eye on

South Florida at (12) Florida Gulf Coast, Wednesday, 6:30 p.m. ET: South Florida (19-1) and FGCU (18-3), off to two of the best starts in the country, are on a collision course this week. Both already have some big midweek wins to their credit—South Florida beat Florida State and FGCU is 3-0 against Florida and Florida State—and will look to add another Wednesday in Fort Myers.

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