Auburn Turns Heartbreak Into Joy In NCAA Tournament

Image credit: Auburn outfielder Steven Williams (Photo by Wade Rackley, Auburn Athletics)

A year ago, Auburn right fielder Steven Williams stood doubled over on the warning track at Florida’s McKethan Stadium. A deep drive from Austin Langworthy had just kicked off his glove and over the wall for a walk-off home run to send the Gators to Omaha and the Tigers home for the summer. Williams looked on, dumbfounded, as Florida celebrated.

On Saturday night at Georgia Tech’s Russ Chandler Stadium, Williams flipped the script. He hit a walk-off, three-run home run that rocketed over the right field wall and into the trees to give Auburn a 6-5 victory against Georgia Tech and send it to Sunday’s Atlanta Regional final, one win away from a return to super regionals.

While Williams and the Tigers celebrated, Georgia Tech lefthander Connor Thomas, who had thrived before the walk-off home run, was left stunned on the mound. His teammates surrounded him, trying to pick him up after the stunning ending.

They didn’t stop there. After Thomas spoke at the postgame press conference, about a dozen of his teammates were waiting for him and walked out of the room with the junior, picking him up again.

It was postseason baseball at its most raw, the emotional highs and lows of the game on full display.

“College baseball, it’s that time of year,” Auburn coach Butch Thompson said. “It’s amazing what these young people can do when they don’t quit. These ninth innings are hard to finish this time of year when two good teams hook it up.”

Thomas was excellent in the first eight innings Saturday, toying with the Auburn lineup and creating groundball outs in bunches. He rolled four double plays, keeping the Tigers from getting any sort of a rally going.

Thomas scattered 11 hits and walked none. He struck out six, gave up just one earned run and worked efficiently, entering the ninth inning having thrown 89 pitches. He is 9-2, 3.11 with 103 strikeouts and 19 walks in 113 innings this spring.

Auburn has this year faced some premium pitchers – Arkansas’ Isaiah Campbell, Texas A&M’s John Doxakis and Mississippi State’s Ethan Small among them – but Thomas impressed Thompson as much as anyone.

“I just let my defense work,” Thomas said. “I had everything working tonight.”

But in the ninth, Auburn was finally able to string something together thanks to an error and hit batter to open the inning. Then, with two outs, Rankin Woley delivered the two-out hit Auburn had been looking for all game, bringing Williams to the plate.

Williams was 0-for-3 so far Saturday, though he had been one of the few Tigers to be able to lift the ball against Thomas. Georgia Tech closer/first baseman Tristin English was ready, but coach Danny Hall opted to let Thomas face Williams, a lefthanded hitter. He planned to go to English, a righthander, if Williams extended the game to bring up Kason Howell, a righthanded hitter.

Thomas had contained Williams early in the game and got ahead 0-2 in the count on Williams. But he couldn’t put him away.

“(Thomas) was kind of doing the same sequence all night but he was executing his pitches and I’ve got to give a lot of credit to him,” Williams said. “He pitched extremely well. The one I hit out, he just hung a slider and it was up in the zone and I just saw it and put a good swing on it and fortunately came out on top.”

After a Freshman All-America season a year ago, Williams has struggled this spring and is hitting .241/.347/.401. But he has eight home runs, second on the team, and on Saturday just how quickly he can still turn a game – and weekend – around.

After a game in which Thompson said Thomas was the puppeteer and the Tigers were the puppet for 85 percent of the night, it is Auburn that is a game away from super regionals and the Yellow Jackets that now must win three straight elimination games to advance.

But such is life in June, a fact Hall and Thompson know as well as anyone. It doesn’t take much to turn celebration into heartbreak in the NCAA Tournament.

In the long run, Thompson said he welcomes the pain like what the Tigers experienced a year ago in Gainesville. Auburn is trying to win regionals in back-to-back years for the first time in program history. And as he tries to build Auburn into a championship-contending program, he knows the heartbreak is a sign they’re moving in the right direction.

“I think if we keep pushing Auburn into these scenarios, that’s the deal,” Thompson said. “If we weren’t playing games right now there’s no hearts to be broken.

“Bring on the heartbreak. Bring it on because we’re in an area that we haven’t been a whole lot before.”

What hurts now can be a boost later, as Williams and the Tigers showed Saturday night.

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