OMAHA, Neb. — Under the bright lights, Auburn crumbled.
Mississippi State scored four runs in the bottom of the ninth for an indescribable 5-4 walk-off win, and the Bulldogs danced over Auburn’s misery at TD Ameritrade Park on Sunday night, capitalizing on a series of Auburn struggles in closing stages and sending the Tigers to the losers’ bracket at the College World Series.
Auburn led 4-1 going into the bottom of the ninth before everything unraveled.
Auburn will play an elimination game on Tuesday afternoon against Louisville.
Auburn scraped the bottom of its pitching depth in that ninth inning. The Bulldogs chewed through six Auburn pitchers in the game. After freshman Richard Fitts gave up a leadoff double jeopardizing that 4-1 lead, Auburn turned to limited veteran Tanner Burns. Mississippi State scored one run with one out down, then another on an RBI groundout. With two outs down and a man on second, Mississippi State had its chance but Auburn’s win was still within grasp.
Then it happened.
A grounder rolled to third baseman Edouard Julien. He got his glove to it and picked it up. Then time could’ve stopped. He hesitated to throw to first as the runner who was on second pushed by him on the way to third. Then the throw to first sailed over first baseman Rankin Woley’s head.
The runner on the way to third peeled around to score the game-tying run on the error.
Then it seemed inevitable. Mississippi State’s Marshall Gilbert hit the game-winner up the middle of the infield with the bases loaded, and the Bulldogs walked off to win, piling together like puppies in the outfield while Auburn — so close to a magic win in the opener of its first College World Series in 22 years — walked off the field dejected and surely shocked from what just happened.
In the locker room moments later Julien stared ahead blankly, his hair ruffled, his eye black smeared over his cheeks, and his head cocked to one side as he stared ahead in the chair in front of his locker.
“Yeah,” he said, behind unblinking eyes. He was asked if anything was going through his mind, or if it was just blank. He paused.
Julien was Auburn’s hero earlier in the game. He hit a huge two-run homer in the top of the second and hit the RBI single in the fourth to make it 3-0 on his three RBI’s.
But Mississippi State kept attacking, the No. 6 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament charging back at unseeded, chalk underdog Auburn.
In the end, nine innings proved to be one too many for Auburn. In the end, 27 outs proved to be one too many for the Tigers to hold on.
Pitcher Jack Owen slapped Julien on the knee with a comforting pat after he answered questions there in front of his locker.
“I thought we did so much well. It just breaks your heart, as a coach,” Auburn head coach Butch Thompson said.
Auburn wouldn’t have gotten to that spot in the bottom of the ninth if it wasn’t for Julien. That was the word from Thompson and Julien’s Tigers teammates. The French-speaking third baseman from Quebec City, Canada, moved into the field this season after a season as designated hitter. His long shot sailed 429 feet and tied the College World Series record for home run distance at TD Ameritrade Park — and electricity surged through the stadium.
A few hours later in the ninth, gasps, cheers and an unsettling shock rippled into the Omaha night.
“I grabbed him when we were coming off and I told him, ‘You know what? We wouldn’t have been here if it wasn’t for you,’” Auburn designated hitter Conor Davis said.
“At the end of the day, we wouldn’t have even been that close in the ballgame or ahead going into the ninth, if it wasn’t for him.”
Auburn shortstop Will Holland sent his mind back.
“We’ve been there many times before,” he said.
In May, Auburn was bounced out of the SEC Tournament in Hoover when LSU scored two runs on a wild pitch and a series of mistakes in the field for a walk-off win that sent Auburn home.
That’s when Auburn’s magic run in the NCAA Tournament started.
“Sometimes you come out on top and sometimes you don’t. But we can’t hang our heads,” Holland said. “There’s a lot of baseball to be played left. We’re just going to come out and keep grinding.”
Auburn will play Louisville at 1 p.m. CT Tuesday in an elimination game.
“We’ve got a resilient group who’s been through a ton,” Thompson said. “We’ll know how to bounce back. I think our deal will be just continuing to execute and play a good baseball game. But I don’t think it’ll be because we won’t come out and compete and give our best again.
“We’ve been through enough to do that.”
For Auburn, facing elimination, there’s nothing the Tigers can do but step out of that shocked locker room and get back to baseball.
Now, they don’t have another choice.
“It’s definitely going to be a tough one to swallow, but it’s part of the game,” Davis said. “We know coming in here it’s a guaranteed two games. We didn’t get the first one. We know we’ve got to swallow that and come back with a little bit of a bounce Tuesday.
“I think this just another testament to what’s been happening to us all season — the ups and downs, and getting punched, and you know what? Our best thing, which we’ve shown all year, is our punch back. And you know what? I’m looking forward to Tuesday.”