When the moment's not too big: How Auburn made it to Omaha

 Chris Lee   in Baseball

Postseason success is about poise and big performances at big times, which is how Auburn pulled an upset of Oregon State. 

Watching the joy of the unexpected unfold is one of the things that compels us to watch college baseball’s postseason. And fewer stories this year have been more compelling than Auburn’s. 

The Tigers ended their stay in Corvallis, Ore., in a big dogpile on the pitcher’s mound. It wasn’t a scene anyone expected before the season, and probably not even two weeks ago. But as soon as closer Blake Burkhalter struck out Garrett Forrester to secure a 4-3 win, a delirious bunch of Tiger players and coaches stormed out of the dugout to celebrate an upset of the No. 3 national seed and the fun began.

Auburn has played the “disrespect” card much of the season. Certainly, that fueled the Tigers’ fire throughout the postseason, with Auburn’s two weeks in the NCAA tournament looking quite different from each other.

Last week, the Tigers—playing at home—demolished Southeastern Louisiana, Florida State and UCLA by a combined 51-18 in a three-game sweep through the Auburn regional. 

That sweep was unlike anything we’d seen recently from Auburn. The Tigers scored double-digit runs in all three games, something they’d failed to do even once in the previous seven games, and only once it its previous 18. 

At OSU, it was about timely pitching and defense; Auburn got great pitching from Tommy Sheehan and Carson Skipper to win Friday's game, and then Burkhalter and Mason Barnett stepped up and did the same on Sunday. The Tigers played errorless ball in both wins.  

Back to “disrespect.” Auburn came into the NCAA tournament with a chip on its shoulder. Certainly coach Butch Thompson--one of the game's best--played that card well. It seemingly plenty of fuel for Auburn to get there. 

But one can hardly blame folks for having doubts about how far the Tigers could advance. 

Auburn’s last four games coming into the NCAA tournament came against Kentucky—hardly an elite pitching staff—and the Tigers scored a combined 11 runs in those games. In SEC regular-season play, Auburn was out-scored 188-162. The Tigers also had a 5.85 ERA in league games. 

Those were hardly indicators of a team ready to inflict major post-season damage. 

Also interesting was the fact that Oregon State out-hit Auburn 8-3 on Monday. That’s not usually harbinger of good things to come. 

But if you watched Monday’s game, it wasn’t hard to understand how Auburn won. One team looked ready for the moment and the other did not. 

It starts with Sonny DiChiara. Southeastern 14's SEC Player of the Year came up big all year and came up with maybe his biggest hit of the season in the third inning, a two-run home run that put the Tigers up, 2-0. 

Second was Barnett. As Auburn’s offense sputtered—it would score just two more runs—Barnett kept an outstanding Oregon State lineup in check for 4 1/3 innings. While Barnett struggled earlier in the year, and while he’s not the type of pitcher who can get you into the seventh or eighth, he's been amazingly dependable for four-to-six good innings over the last two months. Auburn had to have that on Monday and Barnett delivered.

That set Auburn up for the end, where two things stood out, which can fairly be filed away under the category of "poise."

The Tigers didn’t make an error on Monday. Meanwhile, an Oregon State meltdown in the sixth, combined with a timely Bobby Peirce double and a well-executed sacrifice bunt from Brody Moore, helped produce the two runs that would be the difference.

And then came Burkhalter, who had allowed runs in four of his last five five appearances coming into Monday. But on Monday, Burkhalter mixed pitches and hit the corners and retired all eight hitters he faced, including a ninth inning against the top three hitters in the OSU order. Oregon State seemed to have issues knowing what was coming next and then failing to square Burkhalter up even if it did. He struck out five, which was indicative of how dominant he was. 

Auburn’s journey in Omaha starts with Ole Miss a team that beat the Tigers two out of three from March 17-19. But the moment wasn’t too big for Auburn in Corvallis, and that gives the Tigers a shot in Omaha, too.