Georgia Tech’s season ends after falling to Auburn in NCAA regional final

Georgia Tech played Auburn in an NCAA regional final Sunday June 2, 2019 at Russ Chandler stadium.

Georgia Tech played Auburn in an NCAA regional final Sunday June 2, 2019 at Russ Chandler stadium.

At the end of an 11-hour day, Georgia Tech’s season arrived at an earlier-than-expected conclusion.

Playing its second win-or-die game of the day, the Yellow Jackets were taken out of their NCAA regional by Auburn Sunday night at Russ Chandler Stadium in a 4-1 defeat, their second loss to the Tigers in as many nights. After coming back from a 7-2 deficit to beat Coastal Carolina in a loser's bracket game earlier Sunday, the No. 1 seed Jackets could not solve spot starter Bailey Horn or closer Cody Greenhill and made two critical mistakes to lose to the No. 2  seed Tigers.

Awarded the No. 3 seed in the tournament on the basis of a 38-16 record in the regular season and nine series wins out of 10 in ACC play, the Jackets ended their season at 43-19. It is a record far better than was expected at the season’s outset, but the ouster at the regional level came sooner than the expectations at the start of the tournament.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed,” first baseman Tristin English said. “We know we’re a really good ball team and we just didn’t want it to end. We were fighting tooth and nail till the very end. It just didn’t swing our way there.”

It extends a lamentable postseason string for the Jackets. Since reaching the College World Series for the third time in school history in 2006, Tech has now lost at the regional round in nine consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, five times as the regional’s No. 1 seed.

A sellout crowd split between Tech and Auburn fans was highly charged, barely diminishing after a two-hour rain and lightning delay in the middle of the fourth inning.

Shining in defeat was English, who homered in the bottom of the seventh for the Jackets’ only run. In Tech’s four games, English was 11-for-14 with 8 RBI, 6 runs and four extra-base hits. It was almost certainly the final chapter of one of the great careers in Tech history, as the redshirt junior has established himself as a strong draft candidate.

“I told him in the locker room, I’ve coached a lot of great baseball players here at Georgia Tech and other places, and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a player have the kind of performance that he had in this tournament,” Hall said.

The Jackets’ chances in the tournament were short-circuited by injuries to two of their top three starters, Xzavion Curry and Brant Hurter. Curry, Tech’s Friday-night starter for the past three seasons, did not pitch after late April with shoulder inflammation. Hall had hoped that he could contribute this weekend, but between Sunday’s games against Coastal Carolina and Auburn acknowledged that it was a “longshot” that he would be available. Hurter, the team’s ERA leader at 2.42, suffered a Tommy John injury and also was done for the season in late April.

“For probably the last month, for sure, we haven’t had our No. 1 or our No. 3, and I guess I can dream about that in the offseason of maybe what could have been had we been able to have those guys healthy to throw,” Hall said. “But it just wasn’t the way it was.”

Without them, the Jackets tried to piece their way through the regional and sent freshman Cort Roedig to the mound against Auburn. He held the Tigers scoreless through four innings, giving up just two hits, but the rain delay knocked him out of the game. Micah Carpenter came on in relief and looked in control but a misplayed fly ball by left fielder Colin Hall opened the doors for the Tigers.

The error put runners on first and second with one out. Rankin Woley singled to score one run and then Steven Williams, author of the walk-off home run that beat the Jackets on Saturday night, sliced an opposite-field double down the left-field line for two more runs. Williams, from Albany, was named the most outstanding player of the region.

In a 3-0 hole going into the bottom of the sixth, Tech was pressed to even the score with Greenhill, Auburn’s star closer, waiting in Auburn’s bullpen. The Jackets had a promising start when Jackson Webb led off with a walk. However, Webb made Tech’s second costly mistake of the inning when he advanced to Nick Wilhite’s flyout to left and stood on the base for a moment before retreating. It wasn’t fast enough, as Auburn left fielder Judd Ward, the SEC’s leader in outfield assists, threw to first and just beat Webb’s desperate dive back to the bag for a double play.

Hall said that he thought that Webb lost track of the ball and, with the noise from the crowd, couldn’t hear the third- and first-base coaches telling him to go back to first.

“Just kind of a mental lapse, for sure,” Hall said.

It was another base running mistake for the Jackets in a weekend with costly miscues. On Saturday night against Auburn, English failed to tag up from second on a fly to deep center in the fifth inning with the score 5-1 in Tech’s favor, a play that stood up when he was thrown out at home trying to score from second on an infield hit and the Jackets ultimately lost 6-5. In the bottom of the ninth in the Saturday loss to Auburn, an fielding error by sure-handed shortstop Luke Waddell put the leadoff runner on base.

Both Tech errors led to runs for the Tigers.

“Kind of our bugaboo,” Hall said.

By comparison, after Sunday’s game, Auburn coach Butch Thompson said that “we played about as solid a college baseball game as you can play (Sunday).” The Tigers were flawless in the field, walked one and gave up just three hits, a season low for Tech.

The Jackets, who led the ACC in multiple offensive categories, went quietly at the plate. They scored one run in their final 15 innings against the Tigers.

Hall praised Horn and Greenhill, saying that Horn hit 94 miles per hour and Greenhill 95 with their fastballs, but also acknowledged that playing the earlier game (3:59 in length) was likely a factor.

“And so you’re probably not going to be as sharp,” Hall said. “When somebody’s got velocity like that, it can get on you in a hurry. But I thought they threw really well.”

Horn came into the game with a 7.56 ERA in 25 innings pitched. He gave the Tigers six scoreless innings, staying in game through the delay in easily his best outing of the year.

“I knew I had it in me,” he said. “It’s taken some time over the year. I believed in our team, we all believed in each other.”

Tech will have an offseason to rue Saturday night’s lost opportunity, as the Jackets went into the bottom of the ninth ahead, 5-2, with ace Connor Thomas on the mound (Auburn was the home team) before losing on a three-run walk-off home run by Williams with two outs and an 0-2 count. Had the Jackets secured the final out, they would have needed just one more win to move on to a super regional played in their own ballpark.

“Obviously, this is a tough loss, but I can’t be more proud of our team for the way they battled all year, for the way they battled in that first game (Sunday) after a tough loss (Saturday) night in the ninth inning, but you’ve got to tip your cap to Auburn,” Hall said. “They got the big hit (Saturday) night and the same guy got another big hit (Sunday) and then Horn and Greenhill just kind of kept us from mounting many threats. So, disappointing that we couldn’t get it done.”

Instead, the Jackets had to beat Coastal Carolina Sunday afternoon to get to the regional final, where they met Auburn. The Tigers (36-25) will advance to play North Carolina in the super-regional round.