“Goofy Baseball,” Pitching Effort Lead Auburn Past Stanford

Image credit: Auburn's Cole Foster (Photo by Grayson Belanger/Auburn Athletics)

OMAHA — Stanford played to its plan Monday afternoon against Auburn. It grabbed a lead early, got good work from starter Drew Dowd to avoid getting into a slugfest right out of the gate and it handed the ball off to top reliever Quinn Mathews with a lead. 

That particular formula has worked a lot for the Cardinal this season, but it didn’t on Monday, as Auburn absorbed early blows and fought back for a 6-2 win, eliminating Stanford from the College World Series. 

Auburn righthander Trace Bright gave up a run in the first on a Brett Barrera RBI double and a run in the second on an RBI double by shortstop Adam Crampton, but even in giving up those runs, he wasn’t pitching poorly. 

His stuff was good, including a fastball that was routinely hitting 96-97 mph. He also wasn’t laboring all that much. Stanford hit the ball hard a few times in those first two innings, but he only faced five batters in each frame and threw fewer than 20 pitches each time. 

So it was little surprise that he settled in after that point. He went three up and three down in the third and fourth innings, and in the fifth, after Stanford’s Eddie Park reached third base with one out on a single, a sacrifice bunt and a stolen base, the righthander ended his outing by striking out Brock Jones and Carter Graham to leave Park at third. 

He finished the game with five innings pitched, giving up five hits and two runs with no walks and eight strikeouts. 

“They jumped on some first pitches and made me pay for it,” Bright said. “But I think I got my command later in the first a little bit and then better in the third, more so. So that was the biggest thing for me.”

Bright doing what he did was incredibly important, as it not only gave the offense time to work but also kept Auburn from having to play its bullpen cards too early. But when it did eventually play those cards, it went well. 

Lefthander Tommy Sheehan came on after Bright. He struck out the side through the heart of the order in the sixth. He got two outs in the seventh but left with the bases loaded in favor of righthander Blake Burkhalter, the ace of the Tigers’ relief corps. 

He left the bases loaded in the seventh with a strikeout of Brett Barrera, and all told, retired seven of the eight batters he faced as he closed out the victory. He worked with a fastball that touched as high as 97 mph and an absolutely electric cutter in the low 90s that had Stanford hitters flummoxed. 

“I don’t think I had my fastball command all day, but the cutter was working and the changeup was working and that’s what I had to lean on,” Burkhalter said. 

All told, against a Stanford offense that’s hitting .309 as a team with 118 home runs, Tigers pitchers allowed just two runs on eight hits and shut out the Cardinal over the final seven innings on four hits and one walk. 

“I looked at it. We struck out 13 the other night (against Mississippi). Struck out 16 batters today. I had no idea,” said Auburn coach Butch Thompson. “It’s a developmental piece where I’m proud of (Bright). At the end of the day, he was going to make Stanford beat him and he finally settled in the ball game. He had eight strikeouts and no walks. Burky had five strikeouts and no walks.”

The turning point for the offense, according to Thompson, wasn’t a four-run sixth inning or the two add-on runs in the seventh. 

It was actually the fifth inning, which from the outside looked like an ugly inning of offense for the Tigers. 

It started well, with Brooks Carlson leading off with a double and Cole Foster walking right behind him, but from there, Kason Howell bunted into a force out at third, Nate LaRue flied out to right field, which moved Carlson to third, and Foster and Carlson ended the inning by failing to pull off a double steal, ending in Carlson being tagged out between third and home. 

Just like that, a golden opportunity to push across its first run of the game was lost, but Thompson saw it as a positive. 

“I was tired of watching us sitting there having at-bats so we did some goofy stuff,” Thompson said. “Bunted a ball too hard for the first out. We did a first-and-third, and we delayed too much from leaving at third. And it made me happy. It was goofy baseball, but we scored four runs the next inning and it seems like we got each other’s attention.”

And as it turns out, he was right to feel good about that, as the dam finally broke in the sixth. With the bases loaded against Mathews, Bobby Peirce drew a bases-loaded walk to put Auburn on the board. Then, after Carlson struck out swinging for the second out of the inning, Foster connected with a changeup fading away from him and banged it off the wall in left-center field for a three-RBI double. 

Now that they held a 4-2 lead, you could almost see the Tigers relax in real time. 

“I think we finally just exhaled,” Thompson said. “It’s really neat how the players, their perspective, when Cole hit the ball, that was a big exhale for our offense.”

It was a big day in general for Foster, who has been battling a stomach bug over the last few days. He was lifted early from Auburn’s game on Saturday due to dehydration and he was clearly still fighting it on Monday, including after the double, when he looked physically worse for wear after pulling up at second base. 

But he battled through it against Stanford well enough to go 2-for-3, including the biggest hit of the season for the Tigers. 

“That swing meant a lot and Cole came up in a big moment,” Howell said. “And he’s been huge for us all year but that really put a spark in our offense today.”

After going 0-2 in the College World Series in 2019, the win is Auburn’s first in Omaha since 1997. Thompson acknowledges that that’s an accomplishment in and of itself, but he’s also looking ahead to how he can help his team navigate the long road back. 

He knows it’s a tough path to win a national title after losing the first game of the CWS, so Sunday night he called two coaches who have done it, former Oregon State coach Pat Casey and former South Carolina coach (and current athletic director) Ray Tanner. 

“I’m sitting in my hotel last night and I’m, like, alright, they’re telling me only four teams out of the last 40 years have lost that first game and won the national championship. Who is it? And then I looked and I was, like, okay, Pat Casey did it in ’06 and ’18, and Tanner did it in ’10. How about I call them tonight since I’m sitting here? Both of those men got back and both gave me paragraphs of taking me through the journey with their team,” Thompson said. “Like I say, the man or woman or the team that will never quit, they’ve got a chance. And I just want us to fight and I want us to attack. And that’s all you can ask for.”

Auburn showed that fight Monday afternoon, and that gets it one step further up the long road it’s looking to travel this week. 

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