Auburn celebrates their victory over North Carolina in an NCAA college super regional baseball game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Monday, June 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Ben McKeown)
After recording the last out of Auburn’s biggest win, maybe ever, first baseman Rankin Woley hand-delivered the baseball he caught to head coach Butch Thompson. A forever token for a forever moment. A piece of history in Auburn’s 14-7 win over North Carolina to advance to AU’s first College World Series in 22 years.
The true drama in this game happened in the first inning, when Auburn scored 13 runs to jump out to an insurmountable lead. But as the innings mounted, and the moment got closer, the drama intensified. Not because the game was in doubt, but because it was increasingly clear and near that the Tigers were on the precipice of history.
And when it happened — When that line drive hit the back of Woley’s mitt — it was official. a postseason run for the ages went to another level, and the Tigers celebrated jubilantly on UNC’s home infield.
“I’ve never felt this feeling before,” said Steven Williams, moments after the game ended. “I’ve won a few state championships in high school. But that does not compare to this at all. We’ve gone through so much this year, and people definitely didn’t think we’d be in this situation.”
Williams, who has carried Auburn offensively throughout the NCAA Tournament, was actually the only hitless player in an offensive onslaught. The Tigers 13-run inning took 50 minutes, required 17 batters, 65 pitches, five walks and even an error to extend the inning. All said and done, it was the second most runs scored in an NCAA Tournament inning, ever.
Auburn had done everything it needed to do to advance to the College World Series — and North Carolina hadn’t seen a pitch.
“This is a moment that it’s not about me and it’s about seeing those guys against an unbelievable program which was in Omaha last year,” said head coach Butch Thompson. “This is the only way it can happen, to beat an amazing, amazing program and be able to hang with them. To see our players celebrate is special to me.”
The defeat exorcised the demons of a heartbreaking extra-inning loss in a Super Regional deciding game last season at North Carolina. Seven Auburn players had multiple hits, and eight players had a hit in the first inning alone.
Judd Ward, who hadn’t reached base in the entire Super Regional, got on base twice in the first inning, including a game-breaking three-run homer to right field. Matt Scheffler, who had been 2-of-22 in the postseason, had a two run single to make it 13-0. And Auburn, which failed to score all of Sunday, ended up posting 25 runs in three games.
Auburn executed its pitching plan perfectly. They decided at the last minute to insert Tanner Burns in a starting role, only to use him early and avoid the first-inning troubles of the first two games. He threw two hitless innings. Richard Fitts came in and allowed six runs in 5.1 innings — on two home runs. Cody Greenhill finished it out again.
“We knew what we had,” said DH Conor Davis. “We knew what we were capable of. … Just know that we have what we need to get to where we want to go. We just kept being positive, even through the lows of this season.”
The lows of this season have been pronounced. Auburn entered this Super Regional without a hitter batting .290. It entered with its ace pitcher as a guy who wasn’t even an opening weekend starter.
Head coach Butch Thompson has referenced the position Auburn was in entering its final game of the regular season. They were staring down the barrel of a 13-17 conference record — and had lost two in a row to LSU, on the verge of a sweep, down two runs in the ninth inning. A loss, and there were no guarantee that AU would make the NCAA Tournament. A two-run homer tied that game, then Auburn won in extra innings.
It’s a testament to the season that was for Auburn. One with injured and unreliable pitching. One with an offense that was shockingly unproductive. But Auburn gave itself a chance, and have taken advantage of that chance in a historic way.
“Words can’t describe, it’s something we’ve dreamed of,” Ward said. “A lot of hard work has gone into this, 6 a.m. workouts, practice until 6 or 7. It’s just unreal.”
In every game throughout the postseason, Auburn has worn its camouflage hats throughout the NCAA Tournament, with its patch on the back memorializing Rod Bramblett, who was killed in a car crash just two days after the team returned from the SEC Tournament.
The hometown broadcaster was jus in his fourth season when the Tigers last made the College World Series. Before the postseason, Auburn pledged to play for him and his wife Paula. It’s a pledge they’ve spoken about following this postseason’s most magical moments.
In Thompson’s opening statement, after another moment riddled with magic, he spoke about Rod. He spoke about an internal conversation he had, just before history was made.
“It’s weird, if you’ve ever coached and you’re in games where it’s about to end it’s amazing what runs through your mind,” Thompson said. “I was talking to Rod and Paula Bramblett, who we’ve lost recently, ‘Rod, can you help me with that last out?’”
Then that last out came, and it came with unbridled joy. Auburn’s run to the College World Series has been nothing short of magical. And with its each win, it’s galvanized the community even more.
So Woley, with the game winning ball in his glove, gave it to the man that all these players said they came to Auburn for. And that man, Thompson, quietly put that ball in his bag. Out of sight, and safely preserved. What happens to it next, he doesn’t know.
But, he said, “They’re gonna have to fight me for that one.”