Butch Thompson's Auburn ballclub was slated to finish sixth in the SEC West before the season began. Midseason, after three straight conference series losses, their odds of making the NCAA Tournament were dwindling, save any talk about the program's first Super Regional since 1999.
But May was right around the corner.
The Tigers were the first hosting snub in the tournament pool and were selected to No. 16 seed North Carolina State's Regional, which Auburn blasted through, scoring double-digit runs in every outing.
Their demolition derby in Raleigh set up the Super Regional date with No. 1 overall seed Florida. And they nearly pulled it off.
Auburn took the defending national champion Gators to 11 innings before Austin Langworthy's walk-off home run beat Auburn 3-2 and lifted Florida to its fourth straight College World Series appearance.
After recording a pair of outs to begin his start, Auburn senior Andrew Mitchell surrendered a solo home run to SEC Player of the Year Jonathan India — the Coral Springs native’s 20th homer of the 2018 season.
Mitchell then hit a pair of Florida batters in the bottom of the second, putting two on with one out. After a meeting on the mound that resulted in Davis Daniel being sent to the bullpen, the Tigers responded with a 6-4-3 double play to close the frame.
Will Holland began the tying efforts for Auburn in the following inning, stealing second after delivering a two-out single. All-American freshman Steven Williams worked Florida freshman Jack Leftwich to a full count before lacing an RBI single to knot things up at one apiece.
In the bottom of the fourth, Florida’s Blake Reese issued a double into left center to set up a bizarre but effective series of events. The Gators landed runners on the corners after a single from Nick Horvath, who then looked to intentionally fall after taking off from first, distracting Mitchell on the mound. Reese then sprinted from third to steal home, putting the Gators on top 2-1.
Upon further review...— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) June 12, 2018
This is absolutely amazing. pic.twitter.com/iDCCzYGVJO
"It's really a gimmicky play,” said Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan on the ESPN broadcast. “I think that's the first time we ran it all year. It's one of those things you practice in the fall; it's got to be the right situation."
Auburn couldn’t respond offensively, being sent down in order by Leftwich in the following stanza. Leftwich outlasted the fifth-year senior Mitchell, who was pulled in favor of Davis Daniel after a Luke Jarvis error that allowed Deacon Liput to reach first.
In Mitchell’s final game in an Auburn uniform, the New Orleans native, LSU transfer and 2018 New York Mets draftee (Round 14, No. 410 overall) posted 4.1 innings of work with four hits, two earned runs, a walk and four strikeouts. Leftwich’s night was ended an inning later after a leadoff walk by Williams. Leftwich (5 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 3 K) was relieved by fellow freshman Tommy Mace, a 6-foot-6 Tampa native who went a pair of innings with one hit allowed. Closer Michael Byrne, who saw action in all three Super Regional contests, was credited with the save after bullying the Tigers late with five strikeouts in four innings of scoreless work.
Daniel, who allowed a pair of solo home runs in Game 1 relief of Casey Mize, provided an instant spark for a befuddled Tigers defense, striking out Nelson Maldonado and India back-to-back to close out the fifth.
Auburn's Game 3 starter for most of the season, Daniel kept Auburn humming along through extra innings, working out of jam after jam and eventually closing with 5.1 innings pitched, six strikeouts and one hit.
Auburn’s defense sustained its bailout of the cold bats in the bottom of the sixth with a miraculous grab from Jay Estes, who dove for a Langworthy moonshot at the warning track, then rifled the baseball back into the infield for an 8-4-3 double play to erase the Wil Dalton leadoff walk.
Estes’ efforts woke up the Tiger offense at the innings’ turnover as Jarvis led off the seventh with a loud single into right, which resulted in three bases thanks to an E9 followed by a wild pitch advancement.
Then Josh Anthony knotted things up at 2-2.
The senior did his job in the next at-bat, sacrifice-flying out to deep right to score Jarvis, who slid to beat a bombshell throw at home plate by Dalton.
Auburn's defensive intensity rose again in the eighth when freshman Judd Ward laid out for a inning-ending grab on the left foul line, keeping the rubber match tied a two-all. Daniel worked up to five strikeouts in the ninth to send the finale to extra innings.
Auburn ends its 2018 campaign at 43-23 and has not advanced to Ohama in the Super Regional era. This year's MLB Draft saw six Tigers taken -- Casey Mize, Daniel, Brendan Venter, Mitchell, Calvin Coker, Jarvis, Brett Wright -- but four named to the Freshman All-America team, the most in program history.