Auburn kept fighting in Game 1 of the NCAA Super Regionals against host and national 14-seed North Carolina on Saturday.
The Tigers rallied in the final two innings of the game to win the game at 11-7. In the eighth and ninth innings combined, Auburn scored nine runs.
“There’s a resiliency with the bunch,” said Auburn head coach Butch Thompson. “This group has come together. Whether North Carolina wins these next two games or Auburn finds a way to win one, these guys have been connected. These guys are playing for one another. These guys are having fun playing.”
After being unable to get much going against UNC starter Tyler Baum, Auburn took advantage of struggles by the Tar Heel bullpen. Auburn loaded the bases twice in as many innings, and was able to get the big hits to avoid wasting those opportunities.
Things got kicked off in the top of the eighth when Kason Howell doubled but got out on a fielder’s choice at third. This allowed Judd Ward to take first, then Ryan Bliss singled to put two runners on with one out with Auburn trailing 5-2. UNC made a pitching change.
Conor Davis doubled to score one. This was his second double of the day, and he finished 2-for-4 in the game with one RBI.
“There’s no panic in our team,” Davis said. “We believe we can hang in to every game. We can be down five or six runs in the ninth and still think we’re right there, a hit or two away.”
A wild pitch allowed Bliss to score and cut the lead to 5-4. Davis advanced to third and Will Holland drew a walk right after. The Tar Heels made their second pitching change of the inning. Edouard Julien walked to load the bases, still with one out in the inning.
Rankin Woley doubled to clear the bases, and Auburn took its first lead of the game at 7-5. Woley took third on a throwing error, but he was left on base. The damage had been done, though.
Auburn turned to closer Cody Greenhill to pitch in the bottom of the eighth. Greenhill allowed a walk in the inning, but that was the closest UNC got to attempting a comeback in that inning.
In the ninth, Auburn picked up right where it left off. Howell walked, Bliss singled and Davis walked to load the bases again. The Tar Heels made their third pitching change in two innings.
Holland hit a RBI sacrifice fly to add an issuance run to the score at 8-5. Another pitching change was made. Julien hit a two-out, three-run homer over the right field wall, and Auburn took an 11-5 lead.
Julien went 2-for-4 with a single and the homer. He had three RBIs in the game. Woley also went 2-for-4 with three RBIs.
Things got rocky in the bottom of the ninth though. The Tar Heels led things off with a single, a fly out then a double to put two runners in scoring position with one out. A walk loaded the bases.
A single scored a run to cut the lead to 11-6, and Greenhill walked in another run to make it 11-7. The tying run was at the plate with two outs. Greenhill got the fly out and secured Auburn the win.
Before the Tar Heels went to their bullpen, the only runs Auburn had managed to score against Baum had been on a Steven Williams two-run homer in the fifth. Williams now has 12 RBIs and three home runs in the NCAA Tournament. This had cut the lead to 3-2 after UNC scored three runs against Jack Owen in the bottom of the first, but the Tar Heels added a run in the bottom of the fifth and the bottom of the seventh to take their 5-2 lead going into the eighth before Auburn made its comeback.
“When they get behind, they’re just not rolling over,” Thompson said. “I think it’s a great trait of perseverance.”
Auburn takes a 1-0 series lead into Sunday’s game, which is slated for a 10:30 a.m. CST start. Auburn is now one win away from securing its first College World Series appearance since 1997.
“If you really want to win, you have to understand what’s important now, and the next pitch, and in this moment,” Thompson said. “We’ve got to let stuff go.
“What will be important tomorrow is try to focus one pitch at a time. If something happens, and it probably will at some point in the contest tomorrow, can we let it go? And just get right back on what’s important now.”