Auburn Baseball won its first SEC series sweep of the 2022 season, winning Game 2 from behind and maintaining the late lead in Games 1 and 3 to sweep South Carolina and get in the driver’s seat to go at the SEC tournament in the top 4 to be placed Hoover, AL.
Auburn hit three homers behind starter Hayden Mullins, including two late ones from Bobby Pierce and Sonny DiChiara, to win the first game of the series at Plainsman Park 6-3. Mullins, who started inefficiently, shrugged off the defensive errors behind him to play 5.1 innings, 3 hits, 3 runs (2 earned) baseball and batting six. Chase Allsup and Carson Skipper kept the game tight, and after Auburn took a late lead, closer Blake Burkhalter closed the door. Burkhalter, registering his SEC-leading ninth save, dealt with the final five batters with four strikeouts, including reaching for a 98-mile fastball in the final at-bat.
“I just reached back as hard as I could. But yeah, he saw cutter, cutter, (98 mph) fastball, and then I was like, ‘I don’t think he’s going to be ready for that backdoor cutter,’ so I threw it,” Burkhalter said.
The Closer, who recently agreed to a ZERO deal for a branded shirt that said “Closing Time” later this week, found some humor in the situation. “I was asked to make a shirt and they threw out ‘Closing Time’ — when I came out in the last inning I heard them play ‘Closing Time’ over the speakers and I kind of had to chuckle to myself, ‘Well, me can’t mess it up now.” So yes I went back and found these 98.
Auburn head coach Butch Thompson was pleased with the bullpen, especially after a number of guys were behind Mullins in various roles. “We have shortened Skipper’s trip so I promise more that we could use him again. To be honest I thought that was the freshest thing I’ve seen from them in a few weeks.”
The second game started smoothly in front of a sold-out crowd, with right-back Trace Bright conceding four hits but no runs (and getting three double plays from his defense) through the 6th inning. Bright, who took a 3-run lead thanks to some defensive errors from a young South Carolina defense, allowed a leadoff walk and hit a batter after a strikeout and then gave up a 3-run home run to keep the game at three. Tommy Sheehan comes in to clean up the damage, gets a strikeout to end the inning, but then gets into trouble of his own in the 7th. A two-out base hit to left field is scored by Braswell just before OF Bryson Ware’s throw, and Jordan Armstrong came in to relieve Sheehan. After a pass ball and a run-scoring single left on a noncompetitive switch, Auburn pitching coach Tim Hudson made the quick hook and brought in Carson Swilling to end the damage.
Auburn’s fortunes would turn at the end of the 7th when they got a chance to damage a bullpen. After a deliberate walk by Sonny DiChiara, who had loaded the bases, South Carolina left-hander Matthew Becker came on to face Auburn DH Brooks Carlson, leading him five pitches. Auburn put up four runs with two hits to take the lead 7-6. After Carson Skipper retired the team in 8th in the order, homer Cole Foster left for an extra bit of insurance, and Auburn won 8-6. Closer Blake Burkhalter made his SEC-leading 10th save, with two strikeouts in the 9th.
Thompson was pleased with the way his team reacted to losing the lead. “I think we’re starting to see some signs of maturity in our ball club,” Thompson said. “We stayed the course and withdrew offensively. College baseball is so momentum-oriented. They scored the three in the seventh and then we immediately came back and put a four on the board. Being able to react immediately made a huge difference for us.”
Auburn went into game three excited at the opportunity to get his first sweep of the SEC series and excited at the chance to just go out and play baseball without the pressures of a series-defining game. “It’s nice, you know, the pressure is off us. We’ve already won the series. Now it’s time to come here and have fun again,” said helper Carson Skipper, who also stated that if that’s what he needs to do to win ball games, he’ll throw any day. “Nate saw that I was wearing spikes and asked if I was awake and I said, ‘Damn, yes. Let’s win this ball game. Anything I can do to come out and help my team.”
Auburn used him late in the third game, his third appearance of the weekend. Sinkerballer Joseph Gonzalez gave Auburn seven strong innings, but after allowing the first two hitters in the 8th to single and lead the order, pitching coach Tim Hudson went to the bullpen for the 2-0 lead true. Skipper came in and got a strikeout and then a double play on the 6th of the weekend to put out the fire. Closer Blake Burkhalter came in for the 9th, his third appearance of the weekend, and introduced a strikeout and two flyouts to notch his third save of the weekend (and an SEC-leading 11 of the season).
As Auburn prepares to travel to #1 Tennessee for three games next weekend at Lindsey Nelson Stadium, it’s worth taking a look at the postseason predictions. According to college baseball analysts, eighteen conference wins is the projected number for Auburn as a regional league host — the SEC is expected to get just three hosting spots, and Auburn trails Georgia in RPI. Auburn sits at No. 20 as of Sunday night, with an identical 4-2 record against Quadrants 1 and 2. Georgia sits at No. 3 with an 8-3 record against Quadrant 1 and a 5-4 record against Quadrant 2. Currently at 11-7 in the conference, Auburn can score 2-4 in the next two series (@#1 Tennessee, H vs #2 Arkansas) and still reach the magic number of 18 with a 5-1 performance to beat the SEC table to close (H v Alabama, @Kentucky). It’s also possible to pick up additional conference wins at the SEC tournament in Hoover, so there are several ways to carve a path to Omaha for Auburn Baseball.
player of the week
Closer Blake Burkhalter: 3.2 IP, 1H, 0R, 7Ks, 3 saves
Catcher Nate LaRue: 4-8, 5 RBIs, 1 HR, 1 2B, 1 SB, 1 defensive caught stealing.
Auburn takes on Jacksonville State on Tuesday at 6:00 p.m. in Jacksonville, AL. The game will be televised on SEC Network+ and the radio show featuring Voice of the Tigers Andy Burcham alongside Brad Law can be heard locally on 93.9 FM or online on the Auburn Sports Network.
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