CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Auburn’s putting its season in unproven hands.
The Auburn baseball team is starting a true freshman in the biggest game of the year today, the winner-take-all elimination game in North Carolina, and will turn to another a freshman, a familiar face fighting injury, and a closer on one day’s rest as its season hangs in the balance.
Those options aren’t the best. Consider it Auburn’s late welcome to the NCAA Tournament and the Super Regional round.
With their backs against the wall, the Tigers are going to have to fight out of it.
Freshman right-hander Richard Fitts will start for Auburn today in Game 3 against North Carolina set for noon CT, as the Tigers and Tar Heels tangle for a spot in the College World series, and behind him will be fellow freshman Brooks Fuller, sophomore Tanner Burns, who’s been battling injury, and closer Cody Greenhill who pitched two innings Saturday.
Auburn head coach Butch Thompson mentioned all four of those names postgame Sunday after his team’s 2-0 Game 2 loss to North Carolina.
The Tigers eventually named Fitts the team’s Monday starter.
After those four, the Tigers’ depleted bullpen would have to circle back around to players who threw Sunday and in Saturday’s 11-7 opening win for Auburn.
Monday’s elimination decider between Auburn (37-26) and North Carolina (46-18) is set to be broadcast on ESPN2.
Fitts emerged to throw six scoreless innings in admirable effort last weekend in one of Auburn’s wins over Georgia Tech in the Atlanta Regional.
It could take another heroic performance from the Tigers pitchers today to get Auburn to Omaha, Neb.
After Fitts and Fuller came to Thompson’s mind right after the game Sunday, he said Burns “could be available.” Greenhill, meanwhile, closed Auburn’s Saturday win in two innings, but threw 46 pitches in the effort.
“I would imagine Greenhill, down to potentially the last day of the year — I think he’ll give us everything he’s got,” Thompson said.
Fitts threw six scoreless and allowed just four hits in closing Auburn’s 6-5 winners’ game win over Georgia Tech on June 1, coming on in relief for Burns. Burns came out after giving up five runs in three innings then, before Thompson languished postgame over the idea of asking for much more out of Burns this postseason, as he recovers with tightness in his shoulder after being injured in a series at Vanderbilt in late April.
Fitts has thrown better in relief than as a starter this season. Fitts has a 12.15 ERA to his name in five starts this season, and a 2.56 ERA in 13 relief appearances.
Fuller has started eight games this year with a 4.82 ERA, but his last time out in the bottom of the ninth inning of an SEC Tournament game with LSU saw a wild pitch kick-start an agonizing sequence that cost Auburn the game in walk-off fashion.
Auburn ran through Jack Owen and Elliott Anderson on Saturday in Game 1 before turning to Greenhill to close that one, and before Bailey Horn and Ryan Watson set up Anderson’s return in Game 2 on Sunday.
Today, plenty of questions hang as Auburn goes into its biggest game of the year, looking for two freshmen and two sore veterans to carry the team to the College World Series.
The way this magic run for Auburn has gone, it’s no wonder there’d be one more mighty challenge standing in the front of the Tigers on their road to Omaha.