A direct path to Georgia Tech’s first appearance in an NCAA super-regional since 2006 was one strike away. Coach Danny Hall had the pitcher he wanted to record the final out, ace Connor Thomas.
With a win Saturday night over No. 2 seed Auburn, the No. 1 seed Yellow Jackets would advance to the regional final, where they would need just one win to advance to the super regional and put to rest the frustration of eight consecutive postseason exits at the regional round. Under a black sky, with the Midtown skyline beyond the outfield fence, the sold-out crowd at Russ Chandler Stadium was electric and ready to celebrate.
And then Thomas, up 0-2 with two out on Auburn’s Steven Williams with runners on first and second, delivered a slider, a most trusted and effective pitch that helped him earn All-America recognition. But the pitch hung up more than it usually does, and Williams creamed it. It sailed over the right-field fence for a three-run walk-off home run and a crushing 6-5 defeat for the Jackets in a winner’s bracket matchup.
Tech (42-18) will play Coastal Carolina Sunday at noon in an elimination game. The winner will play Auburn at 6 p.m. needing to win to force a winner-take-all game on Monday at noon. The Jackets, who were projected to finish fifth in the ACC Coastal Division but then surpassed all expectations to win the division and earn the No. 3 national seed, now are in severe jeopardy of having their College World Series dreams extinguished. In the past three years, 38 of 48 teams that won the winner’s bracket game ultimately won the regional.
The cost of Saturday night’s loss did not require explanation. As Williams circled the bases, Thomas crouched at the edge of the mound, his head down.
“Had everything working (Saturday),” said Thomas, his voice catching. “It just didn’t work out.”
So ended a game that the Jackets led 5-1 after three innings and seemed well on their way to victory, having chased Auburn ace Tanner Burns with their signature patient approach at the plate and aggressive and alert baserunning.
It rendered to dust an exemplary start by Thomas, who was in control of the Tigers after giving up a first-inning home run to Ryan Bliss. Thanks to his defense turning double plays to end the second, third and fifth, Thomas faced the minimum 12 batters in the second through fifth innings, then avoided trouble through the eighth.
“Thomas was the puppeteer and we were the puppets for 85 percent of that ballgame,” Auburn coach Butch Thompson said.
Thomas was at 88 pitches heading into the ninth, within his limit. But the Jackets invited danger. Shortstop Luke Waddell bobbled a grounder to let the leadoff man Conor Davis on base, just his eighth error of the season. Thomas then hit Will Holland, just his fifth hit batsman in 112 innings this season.
But then Thomas got Matt Scheffler to fly out and struck out Edouard Julien. Even when Rankin Woley singled in a run to make the score 5-3, Thompson already had notes prepared for his team for a post-game speech – he was going to highlight the four double plays that Auburn hit into and the lack of two-out hits.
And then Williams took Thomas deep. Thompson said he knew it as soon as the ball left Williams’ bat. It was his second home run in as many games in the regional and redeemed a line drive that he misplayed in right field that led to a four-run second inning for the Jackets.
“And then I had to scribble out the two-out hits because Woley and Steven got two out hits back-to-back to change the ballgame,” Thompson said.
(That Auburn was the home team and thus able to win in walk-off fashion was the result of the rules for the regional. The home-team designation is not by seed, but rather by rules designed to rotate the advantage. The Tigers were the home team by winning a coin flip. As things would have it, Coastal Carolina will also be the home team, because the Chanticleers have played two games as the visiting team and Tech has only done so once.)
Given that Hall had options to relieve Thomas, notably closer Tristin English, available, the decision to keep Thomas on the mound was open for second guessing. The final pitch of the night was Thomas’ 105th, his season high by two. Hall said he wanted the lefty-lefty matchup he had with Thomas against Williams, and was ready to replace Thomas if Williams reached base.
“But we never got to that point,” Hall said. “But we just kind of felt like Connor was the guy, particularly with a left-handed hitter in the box.”
A particular biting twist to the game’s final play for Thomas – Williams and Thomas are childhood friends through baseball. Thomas is from Tift County and Williams is from Albany.
“I was 0-for-3 until that point so I guess he could say he got me pretty good, too,” Williams said. “He’s a great pitcher, he always has been. I hate it that it had to be one of my good friends, but I’m happy to get the win here.”
Another unpleasant coincidence for the Jackets – Thompson, Auburn’s coach, has a history in helping deliver heartache to the Jackets at Russ Chandler. He was an assistant at Georgia in 2004 when the Bulldogs beat Tech in a super-regional, when little-used outfielder Jonathan Wyatt hit a two-run homer in the eighth to help send the Bulldogs to the College World Series. He was an assistant in 2011 with Mississippi State when the Bulldogs took the Atlanta regional as the No. 3 seed, defeating the Jackets in the championship game 7-3.
What was far more meaningful for the Tigers after the game was the memory of Rod Bramblett, the beloved voice of the Tigers who died last Saturday with his wife Paula in a car crash. The Tigers are also playing to honor the memory of an Auburn police officer who was killed on May 19 who had often worked security at Tigers baseball games and whose father is a longtime season ticket holder.
“I don’t think there’s any question any Auburn fan around the world would echo my sentiments that there is no question that, when that ball came off that bat, that you didn’t have a feeling for a second as it was traveling that Rod Bramblett was with us (Saturday),” Thompson said.
The emotion of the moment aside, the Jackets are now needing to win three games with starters Amos Willingham and Thomas unavailable. Hall said he’d likely start Keyton Gibson against Coastal Carolina. Jonathan Hughes is another possibility, and Hall has also said that he expects Xzavion Curry, who has been out with shoulder inflammation, to return to the mound. Jackets relievers have been up and down, but now likely have little margin to spare.
Tech does have some experience in trying to play its way out of a hole. Of the Jackets’ nine ACC series won this season, five of them required Tech to win on Saturday and Sunday after losing the series opener on Friday. Tech has also won four walk-off games.
The Jackets have thrived on being counted out and playing with a chip on their shoulder. They likely weren’t seeking such duress in the regional, but, for better or worse, they have all they need now.
“We’re a confident ballclub; we know we can play baseball with anyone,” said English, who is 7-for-7 in two regional games. “We thought we had the game (Saturday). Auburn, credit to them. (They) ended up grinding it out in that last inning. We know how to bounce back. We’ve been doing it all year, so I expect nothing but a good, hard-fought ballgame (Sunday).”