OMAHA, Neb. – Auburn’s long and gritty ride ended with a strikeout on the field and hugs in the clubhouse. No team in this College World Series has seen darker days the Tigers did this season. No team here has suffered a more excruciating loss than the Tigers had in their first game. No player in town had to endure what the Auburn third baseman had to the past three days.
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And still, the Tigers fought on, to the last at-bat, to the last pitch. And then it was over, and Louisville had won 5-3, and Auburn was gone. But there is so much more to the story than that final score.
“I think how hard (Auburn's) kids fought today says a lot about their program,” Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said afterward. "They just didn't make it easy."
This is the team that finished sixth in its division in SEC.
This is the team that had to overcome injuries and slumps and all the other pitfalls of baseball that can swallow hope. This is the team that had no ranking and little outside expectation at the end of the regular season.
This is the team that had to mourn a beloved radio broadcaster when Rod Bramblett and his wife were killed an auto accident in late May. Those were his initials on their caps in Omaha.
This is the team that lost about as painfully as a baseball team lose in its opening game Sunday, giving up a 4-1 lead in the ninth inning to Mississippi State, the door left ajar on Edouard Julien’s throwing error, when an out would have ended the game in Auburn victory.
This is the team that fell behind Louisville 4-1 in the muck and rain Tuesday, until the elimination game was suspended. For 20 hours the Tigers had to wait, understanding how firmly planted to the wall their backs were. It would have been easy to mail it in Wednesday, their hearts and minds halfway to home. But still they showed up, believing they could somehow pull it off, and nearly did. They had 13 hits, they left 12 runners on.
It could have been so different. But everyone watching the past few days got an example of what this team is about.
“We’re a family. You can see that in the way we play,” shortstop Will Holland said afterward in a quiet clubhouse.
“That was the season in a nutshell,” designated hitter Conor Davis mentioned.
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“I think it just summed up who we are, that’s our identity,” said first baseman Rankin Woley.
“It says a lot about us,” third baseman Edouard Julien said. “Everyone doubted us, we were never ranked, nobody believed in us. Only us in the locker room knew we had a pretty good team and we had a chance to come here."
Someone else will get the trophy in Omaha, but you could make the case Auburn could stand as the champion example of the curvy, fragile world of baseball. Where joy can turn so quickly to grief, or the other way around.
Take Davis, the guy whose bat deserted him in the regional, going 1-for-18. Now there’s a cold snap. Against Louisville, his last three at-bats were double, double, homer.
Double.— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) June 19, 2019
Have yourself a day, Conor Davis! #CWS | @AuburnBaseball pic.twitter.com/8uYes6YA6P
Take Woley. His strikeout was the final out Wednesday, and he went 0-for-5 against the Cardinals. That was him in his locker afterward with his head down. But Tuesday he was also the symbol of Auburn purpose when he slid fearlessly into the box seat fence and wall, going full-tilt after a foul pop-up. It did not matter to him at the time what he could have done to his knee. “It’s not that bad,” he said of the knee Wednesday. “You should check the cement.”
Or most especially, take Julien. He was the very picture of baseball desolation after his error, as his teammates tried to console him. Would he be haunted the rest of his stay here? Would he play like a man in a shell?
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Well, the Auburn fans Tuesday gave him a huge applause of support when he was introduced, and then he fought through a 10-pitch at-bat that ended with a single. He singled and walked his three other appearances against the Cardinals, reaching base every time. So no, he would not.
“We all wanted to bounce back,” he said afterward. “There are seniors on this team who are probably never going to play baseball again, and I feel like I kind of let them down. It’s hard to take.
“But everyone’s been supporting me. It’s been a hard 48 hours, but I’ve learned from it and I’ll be better next time.”
Said his coach Butch Thompson, “He’s OK. You know why? Because he plays for Auburn. I think that was the loudest ovation I heard yesterday.”
Typical College World Series, this game wasn’t Wednesday. No buzz or big crowd. Louisville and Auburn starting the fifth inning in a mostly empty ballpark, 20 hours and 11 minutes since the previous pitch. Suspended games in the losers’ bracket that resume at 11 a.m. aren’t big draws.
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But there was drama, all right. Always seems to be when Auburn is in the house. Remember how the Tigers’ basketball season ended in the Final Four? And if the baseball team leaves Omaha with no victories -- "This is going to sting a while," Woley said -- that doesn’t mean there was no reason to celebrate. Not considering how hard the Tigers were to get rid of, and what they had to go through to be that way.
“All year we sat there and had ups and downs,” Woley said. “The whole time we stayed even keel and didn’t let it get to us. Everybody saying oh, there’s no way that Auburn’s got that in them. But we showed the Auburn family especially and the rest of the world that Auburn’s here to fight.”
No championship run from Auburn. Just an example.