Offensive Explosion Helps Auburn Break CWS Drought

Image credit: Photo courtesy of Wade Rackley, Auburn Athletics

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Auburn won its first four NCAA Tournament games thanks in large part to its offense, which averaged nine runs per game during the postseason winning streak. But on Sunday in Game 2 of the Chapel Hill Super Regional, North Carolina silenced the Tigers’ offense with a shutout win to force a decisive Game 3.

On Monday, Auburn’s bats roared back to life. The Tigers exploded for 13 runs in the first inning en route to a 14-7 victory that secured Auburn’s first College World Series appearance since 1997.

“I think about the whole program in a moment like that,” Auburn head coach Butch Thompson said. “Every coach, every player, every fan that’s really ever been a part of our program and supported it. This is for them today.”

The small crowd of Auburn fans that were crammed into a few rows behind the first base dugout at Boshamer Stadium erupted at the end of the first inning, and for good reason. This run to Omaha seemed improbable at several points throughout the season.

Auburn came into the year having to replace Casey Mize, the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft, and trying to wash away the bad taste in its mouth after a heartbreaking walk-off loss at Florida in the Gainesville Super Regional. The Tigers had high hopes for the season at the outset, but injuries and some subpar performances would soon test that resolve.

Righthander Davis Daniel entered the season expecting to be one of the early names called in the first few rounds of the 2019 draft, but he fell to the seventh round after not pitching since Opening Day due to Tommy John surgery. Righthander Tanner Burns and lefthander Jack Owen were both banged up at times this spring. Shortstop Will Holland, who last summer played for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team, never got on track offensively this season and sluggers Edouard Julien and Steven Williams, both 2018 Freshman All-Americans, suffered through sophomore slumps.

Despite every obstacle the Tigers faced, they managed to overcome all of the adversity to earn the program’s fifth College World Series appearance.

“When you’re with a group, when you play a game and you reach a pinnacle, I mean those guys are connected for life,” Thompson said. “Those guys are gonna be able to come back to Auburn for the rest of their lives and there’s a legacy.”

At the start of the final game of the series, UNC coach Mike Fox gambled by starting closer Joey Lancelotti. UNC hasn’t had a consistent third starter all season and has used an opener at times, but the gambit didn’t work on Monday.

The Auburn offense returned to its strong postseason form and scored runs in every way imaginable. It started with Lancelotti walking the first four batters he faced and continued for nearly an hour as UNC tried anything to get out of the inning and the Tigers continued to feast.

Auburn left fielder Judd Ward opened the scoring when Lancelotti walked him in. He came around to hit again in the inning and crushed a three-run home run over the right field fence.

“We were patient, just stuck to our approach, put good swings on balls and left balls in the dirt that we didn’t need to swing at,” Ward said.

It took 65 pitches from four different UNC arms to make it out of the top of the first inning. After a team effort from Lancelotti, Connor Ollio, Hansen Butler and Will Sandy, the Tar Heels eventually managed to end the first inning having given up nine hits and five walks.

Things looked like they might somehow get even worse for North Carolina when Sandy was nailed in the back by a line drive off Auburn first baseman Rankin Woley’s bat in the top of the third inning. However, Sandy remained steady, finishing with one run and one walk allowed through 5.2 innings.

The Tigers’ pitching staff was a different story for the most part thanks to Burns and righthander Richard Fitts. Burns, a prominent 2020 draft prospect who has been limited by soreness in recent weeks, threw the first two innings with no hits, one walk and three strikeouts.

Early visions of playing in Omaha may have filled the heads of the Tigers and distracted them a bit as North Carolina was able to muster up a slight comeback with a three-run homer to right field by McGee in the bottom of the fourth, followed by a pair of home runs from slugger Aaron Sabato. However, Auburn’s early damage had essentially ended the game by the middle of the first inning, rendering the final two hours and 45 minutes in Chapel Hill a simple formality.

Those same Auburn fans in the stands by first base waved goodbye to the UNC fans that began filing out of the Bosh during the seventh inning stretch, shortly after the Tigers scored their 14th run of the game.

While Auburn has finally snapped its Omaha drought —which had been the third-longest in the SEC—its still hungry. The Tigers will travel to the CWS seeking their first-ever national championship.

“I told the team about three weeks ago, once I knew we had a chance to get in the postseason because it was such a tough journey, I told them, ‘Hey, wherever you take me, I’ll go and I’ll lead you the best I can,’” Thompson said.

“But I’m kinda glad they’re taking me to Omaha.”

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