No. 14 Auburn baseball will open its NCAA Regional against Southeast Louisiana at 6 p.m. CST, the first of at least two games. From this game forward, the Tigers are firmly in control of their own destiny.
"The next time we take the field it'll be for keeps," said head coach Butch Thompson. "You play an entire season for moments when it's time to prove it. You have to draw from every experience that you've had this entire season and put it into play. There's no more reset. This is it. You have to prove it and play well to continue to advance."
As a national seed and thus the host institution, Auburn brings in No. 2 UCLA, No. 3 Florida State and No. 4 Southeast Louisiana for the four-team bracket. Regionals are a double-elimination format.
The four teams wrapped up practice in at Plainsman Park on Thursday. Each team was assigned a 75-minute window to acclimate to the facility. Practices stretched through the heat of the day, beginning at 10 a.m. for Auburn and wrapping up with Southeast Louisiana's 3:45 p.m. conclusion.
The Tigers and Lions have never faced, but they shared some common opponents through the season. Both teams faced LSU, Ole Miss and Arkansas of the SEC and a slate of teams outside the conference.
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Southeast Louisiana finished at 14-10 in conference but had a rocky time away from home. The Lions went 9-17 on the road and played no neutral site games, which could be an indication of how they fare at Plainsman Park.
In six of its past seven regional appearances, Auburn took a win in the opening game. This success dates back to 2003. The Tigers have a long history of selection and elimination in the Tallahassee Regional hosted by Florida State.
Southeast Louisiana comes into the Regional hot off a Southland Conference Tournament title it won in eight games. Under head coach Matt Riser, the Lions have advanced to four regionals in the last eight full seasons.
The Lions, as a team, are hitting .251 this season. They are led by fifth-year senior Preston Faulkner’s .343 on the year. Known for their base running, the Lions are 13th best in the country with 113 stolen bases.
“They like to be aggressive on the base path. They like to steal bases, try and disrupt your timings and pitchers,” said junior Trace Bright. “Keeping that under check and eliminating the free passes is a big thing for us to keep them from creating offense.”
Bright will get the start on the mound for the Tigers. He has pitched 70 innings throughout the season, entering the Regional with a 3-4 record. His longest outing was six innings, and he earned a season-high eight strikeouts at Tennessee.
“I kind of had a few short outings, so it was a little bit of rest for my arm. Being able to focus after school got out, solely on baseball, that helped devote more time to sit down and figure things out before we got going,” Bright said. “Scrimmaging this past week, I think that was good for us to simulate a game, but I think we’re in the right mindset and we’re ready to go.”
Auburn also expects to see the return of Cole Foster at second base. Foster exited the game in Knoxville, while the Tigers were away to play Tennessee, and has been gradually returning to practice and scrimmage since then.
Head coach Butch Thompson says he will likely call in Joseph Gonzalez to pitch the second game. Depending on the outcomes of Friday’s games, Auburn will face either UCLA or Florida State.
Gonzalez has a 6-2 record on the season, giving up just 20 runs in 61.2 innings. His longest outing was a nine-inning, eight-strikeout affair at Vanderbilt in early April.
Despite it being summer and an NCAA event, students will be allowed to attend, with seating inside the Tiger Terrace and various viewing locations outside the park. A tropical storm watch has been issued in the Gulf of Mexico, so temperatures Friday will only reach the low 80s due to a slight cold front from the storms.
Auburn and Southeast Louisiana will play the second session of the day at Plainsman Park, with the game streaming on ESPN+. If the Tigers win, they will play Saturday night, again at 6 p.m. CST. If they lose, they will play at noon.
One team out of the winner’s bracket Saturday will advance to game six, Sunday night’s championship. Game five will be played Sunday morning to determine which team advances to the championship out of the loser’s bracket.
There is the potential for a game seven on Monday if a championship team must be defeated twice to be eliminated. The winner of Auburn’s Regional will move on to the Super Regional against the winner of Oregon State’s Regional.
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