Hoover, Ala.—Despite a valiant effort that saw Auburn fight back from an early five-run deficit to make a game of it, the Tigers couldn’t get enough offense to pull out the victory as they fell 5-3 to South Carolina to be eliminated from the SEC Tournament on Thursday. Relievers Derek Varnadore and Justin Bryant kept Auburn in the contest by pitching four and one/third scoreless innings, but the Gamecocks were too much for the Tigers once again.
“I’m really proud of how our team competed today,” Coach John Pawlowski said. “I thought they battled in all three games of this tournament. Today was another battle for us. I thought (Michael) Roth threw the ball extremely well and we didn’t have too many opportunities. He did a great job. I can’t say enough about how our team competed and gave us a chance to win. Unfortunately we weren’t able to do it.”
In the end it was too little and too late for the Tigers as they couldn’t get enough offense going against the combination of Michael Roth and Matt Price for the Gamecocks. Getting the win to improve to 6-1 on the season, Roth allowed two runs on seven hits in six and one/third innings while Price picked up his 10th save after allowing a run on two hits in two and two/thirds innings of relief.
With the loss Auburn falls to 31-28 overall and is now likely on the outside looking in at the NCAA Baseball Tournament. The selection show is slated for Monday at 11 a.m. on ESPN and it’s one both Bryant and Varnadore said they’ll be watching and hoping this team gets a chance to keep playing.
“We've done so much,” Bryant said. “We definitely had our ups and downs. It's been a good ride. I'm hoping we get a bid.”
A fellow senior, Varnadore agreed.
“It definitely hasn't been the season we were planning for in January, but we came a long way and met a lot of challenges along the way,” he said. “I'd really like to get in a regional. I think we could go a long way in that format.”
At the plate Auburn was held in check early but recovered to collect nine hits with Ryan Tella, Bryant, and Patrick Savage getting two each. The Tigers left just five runners on base, but it was the situations when they were left that proved to be the problem. In particular it came back to haunt the Tigers in the seventh inning as they got a pair of runners on with one out, but failed to score.
“We had a situation where we hoped to get to Cullen Wacker, one of our best guys on the bench,” Pawlowski said. “The situation merited that, but unfortunately it didn’t work out for us. I thought we had a couple of chances there.”
Earning the start, Cory Luckie was hoping to get out of the gate strong but it wasn’t to be on this day. Leading off, Joey Pankake doubled off the glove of Jay Gonzalez in right field to set the tone for the Gamecocks. Following a sacrifice bunt, a Christian Walker fly ball scored Pankake to make it 1-0 South Carolina.
Following a scoreless first inning, the Gamecocks went to work again in the second as Adam Matthews singled with one out and moved to second on a wild pitch. It proved to be big as Erik Payne doubled him home for the two-run cushion after only two innings at the plate.
With Auburn striking out at a torrid pace, five through the first three innings, the Gamecocks again went to work in the fourth against reliever Slade Smith. Three consecutive singles from L.B. Dantzler, Greyson Greiner and Matthews made it 3-0 with nobody out for South Carolina. After recovering to strike out the next two hitters, Chase Vergason’s sharp grounder hit the second base umpire to load the bases for Pankake. Working a walk, Pankake’s RBI made it 4-0 South Carolina with one of the top pitchers in the country in complete command.
Slade Smith fields a bunt in Thursday's game
Another run in the top of the fifth made it a five-run advantage before Auburn finally got something going on offense. Leading off the inning with a single, Justin Bryant moved to third on a Patrick Savage double to give the Tigers their first scoring opportunity of the game.
Following a Zach Alvord pop up to second base, Dan Glevenyak lifted a fly ball to right field to score Bryant. Now on the board at 5-1, Auburn would continue to try to climb back in this one throughout the game.
With Varnadore pitching well in relief, the Tigers came back for more in the sixth as catcher Caleb Bowen reached on an error by the South Carolina second baseman and advanced to second on an errant throw. After a ground ball moved Bowen to third, Creede Simpson’s fly ball to center field scored him to cut the lead down to three.
Auburn had a golden opportunity to inch even closer in the bottom of the seventh as Savage and Alvord singled to open the inning and moved to third on a bunt by Glevenyak. With the game on the line the Gamecocks went to the bullpen for Price. With Roth still in the game the Tigers sent Kody Ortman to pinch hit for Bobby Andrews, but facing the righty Pawlowski called on Wacker.
Out for the last month because of a knee injury before pinch hitting on Wednesday, Wacker struck out to leave it up to Bowen. Fighting off several pitches, Bowen hit a ground ball to second to end the inning.
With two outs in the bottom of the eighth Ryan Tella smoked a double to right field to keep the Tigers alive and kicking. In on the mound in relief, Bryant continued his strong play in Hoover with a single to left field to score Tella and make it 5-3. Savage tried to tie the game with his next swing, but his deep fly ball was tracked down to send it to the ninth with Auburn still in the hunt. The Tigers hit the ball hard in the last frame, but went down in order to end the game.
Now all Auburn can do is wait. Despite series wins over Arkansas, LSU, Mississippi State, and Ole Miss, the Tigers finished the regular season just three games over .500. Pawlowski said his team has done some good things and he hopes its rewarded.
“I think our team has competed well all year,” Pawlowski said. “There has been no quit in this team and they have battled hard. I know we’ve got a good club and our team has played well. It’s certainly a team that is as competitive as can be.”