Butch Thompson looked at his watch, then cracked a joke about missing his bus before stepping outside to Donahue Drive.
The time had come — for him, and for the rest of the Auburn baseball team.
The Tigers take on Tennessee today at 4:30 p.m. in the first round of the SEC Tournament, with coaches and players alike knowing now just as they did then, loading up and riding off for Hoover on Monday, that it’s now or never for the team heading into its destiny in the postseason.
Auburn (32-23 overall, 14-16 SEC) and Tennessee (38-18, 14-16) will play in the third game of the day at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, to be broadcast on SEC Network.
It’s a single-elimination game the Tigers will have to survive if they’re going to move on to double-elimination play starting Wednesday. Auburn enters the tournament coming off a thrilling, extra-inning 5-4 win over LSU in its season finale on Saturday, a victory the Tigers said was huge in capping an up-and-down season on The Plains.
Auburn’s now the No. 8 seed in the conference tournament, crossing with ninth-seeded Tennessee, and bent on rising to the opportunity that’s coming ahead in the do-or-die postseason.
“I love this scenario,” Thompson said Monday in the baseball offices in Auburn at the stadium, just before heading out to catch that bus and head up to Hoover for an afternoon practice in preparation for today’s game.
“I love playing in this tournament,” he said.
Four single-elimination first-round games will be played today, to determine the four survivors moving on to meet the top four seeds, which earned byes into double-elimination activity starting on Day 2.
Top-seeded Vanderbilt looms awaiting the Auburn-Tennessee winner on Wednesday. Simply put, Auburn must win in an elimination game Tuesday to advance to Wednesday and settle in for an eight-team, double-elimination tournament that begins then.
“These first games in the tournament, it’s amazing,” Thompson said, before looking back at Auburn’s run in these win-or-go-home first-round games the last two seasons. Two years ago, Auburn beat Ole Miss 5-4 to survive and advance, and last year topped Kentucky 4-3 in 11 innings in the first-round game where the margin of error is so small, and where a team’s run in Hoover can end before it ever really gets started.
“We’ll try to get our guys to understand that brief history, that short-term history, of competing in this tournament, then try to go figure out a way to win where we can stay a few more days and have people come out and see us play,” Thompson said.
Auburn lost its first two games at LSU last weekend, before charging back to win the finale 5-4 in 11 innings.
The Tigers are going to try to use all the momentum they can bring from that big win into the tournament this week, shortstop Will Holland said.
“It was a different feel,” Holland said of the win. “I felt like we all really wanted that game, and I felt like a championship team for the first time in a long time. It was just a great feel, and I think all the guys want to have fun in this tournament and make a run for it.
“I’m excited for what’s next.”
Next, of course, is this conference tournament — one the Tigers don’t mind admitting marks an important time every year for the program.
“The first time we got to go to the tournament, I’m like, ‘This is a big deal for Auburn and we’re going to embrace it, not gloss over it,’” Thompson said, of his team’s approach to the weekend ever since his arrival as head coach. “We’re always going to put our best foot forward for this tournament because I think it means a lot to our program.
“That tournament is so special. If a ballclub can figure out a way to win the Southeastern Conference Tournament you think you can do anything. … As you continue to try to build and solidify a program and it’s in your state, we’re always going to embrace that and look forward to this tournament.”