Auburn baseball was pumped up to host its first NCAA Regional in 12 years, and it proved it on Friday night with an explosive 19-4 win in its opening game over SE Louisiana.
In its season-high scoring effort (Auburn also scored 19 in a win over Ole Miss), every player contributed. All nine of the starters reached base, and only Kason Howell didn't get a base hit, although he reached twice on a walk and a hit by pitch and scored once. The team got a season-best 20 hits.
Six Auburn hitters notched multi-hit games, including three players: Blake Rambusch, Sonny DiChiara and Mike Bello, had three knocks. However, it was Cole Foster, who was making his return from an oblique injury, that led the club with four hits that all were extra-base hits. Nate LaRue and Brody Moore also had two hits a piece.
"Great night for us,” said head coach Butch Thompson. “Everybody contributed from top to bottom... We’ve been looking for that. When you see them invest in something and then get rewarded for it, that’s a good feeling.”
The long ball was a frequent event for Auburn, as it blasted a program record-tying seven long balls in the game, and the pitchers fed off of the offensive energy and struck out 14 Lions.
"We stood in there and battled," Thompson said. "Power to all fields showed up tonight... It started off with Rambusch getting a hit with two strikes, and he just passed it down from there."
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The crowd showed up to Plainsman Park in bunches, but some not fast enough, as Auburn got off to an 11-0 advantage after just one inning. In fact, the Tigers compiled six hits and sent nine batters to the plate before an out was recorded on a sacrifice fly from Bello.
The Tigers weren't done there. The team batted around and sent 14 hitters in the first inning alone. They recorded eight hits and four home runs in the first inning for the first time since 2010, and Foster, who made his return to the lineup at second base after a seven-game absence, was at the head of it.
The switch hitter slugged not one homer but two in the home first and tallied six RBI in just one frame. At second in the order, Foster launched a no-doubt moonshot over the Green Monster from the right side to put Auburn up 2-0, but after a pitching change, Foster was forced to go to the left-handed batter's box in his next at bat.
It was no problem for Foster. He launched one over the right field fence that time for a grand slam to extend Auburn's lead to double digits.
Also joining the dinger party in the first was Bobby Pierce after DiChiara's single, making it 4-0. Next time DiChiara came up, he was following Foster's bases-clearing dinger, and he did it with style. Capping off Auburn's monstrous inning, DiChiara went back-to-back with Foster to the opposite field for his 19th home run of the season.
With such a demanding lead, the pressure was off of starter Trace Bright, but he was sharp nonetheless. He improved his record to 4-4, going five solid innings and striking out 10 while allowing four runs on six hits and two walks.
While Bright kept working, the bats kept producing. The Tigers scored eight more runs after the first inning on 12 more hits.
“It’s comforting to have 11 runs in the first inning,” Bright said. “Kudos to Cole [Foster] and everybody else up and down the lineup. You’ve still got to stay locked in and stay focused. You’ve still got to treat it like a 0-0 ballgame.”
Alongside Foster, LaRue also managed a multi-homer night with two towering long balls. His first extended Auburn's lead back to 11 in the second inning, and his second sent the crowd "oohing" and "aching" as a ball that seemed to defy gravity went a mile high and landed somewhere on the other side of the Green Monster in the sixth inning to put Auburn up 17-4.
On the topic of multi-homer games, Foster wasn't done hitting bombs after the first inning. He hit his third of the night with a three-run shot, again from the left side in the bottom of the fourth. This gave Foster nine RBI in just three swings of the bat.
“It’s awesome, and it's a great feeling,” Foster said. “I’m just glad we came out on top.”
Relieving Bright was sophomore southpaw Konner Copeland. He had a 13-run advantage to work with and little pressure, but he still pitched like the game was on the line in his first collegiate postseason appearance. He was scoreless through his first two innings while only throwing 24 pitches, allowing Thompson to go to him again in the eighth inning.
He got into a jam in the eighth, but with a 17-4 lead, Thompson had the privilege of letting Copeland try to work out of it himself. However, after a two-out, bases-loaded double that allowed Copeland's third run of the inning, Thompson turned to senior Brooks Fuller.
Fuller walked his first batter, reloading the bases, but he struck out the next batter to end the inning and send the game to the bottom of the eighth with a 17-7 score.
Auburn then boasted a 10-run lead with only three outs to get for the win, but the offense didn't let up.
After senior Garrett Farquhar led off the inning with a walk after entering the game at third base for Rambusch in the previous frame, Foster nearly hit his fourth homer of the day, but the Green Monster was too tall this time, and it bounced off for a double. With runners then on second and third, DiChiara hit an RBI groundout, and Cam Hill knocked an RBI single into right field before SE Louisiana got the final out.
Returning to the mound for the ninth inning, Fuller recorded a three-up-three-down frame to finish the night with a 12-run win.
Next on the schedule, Auburn (38-19) will meet No. 3 seed Florida State (34-23) in the winner's bracket of the Auburn Regional on Saturday at 6 p.m. CST. The winner of that game will advance straight to the Regional Championship, while the loser will play the winner of UCLA and SE Louisiana in an elimination game.
With Auburn projected to finish last in the SEC West in 2022 and having not hosted a Regional since 2010, fans were eager for the opportunity to cheer on the Tigers in Plainsman Park to start the postseason. Fans filled Tiger Terrace down the left field line, packed out the section behind the right-center field fence and even filled each level of the parking deck.
This is a trend that Auburn looks to continue into the tournament, as Thompson warns that even with the big win against SE Louisiana, Saturday's game brings "different circumstances."
"Everybody’s worked during our tenure here for seven years to create a night like that in our ballpark,” Thompson said. "This is a tough tournament. Regionally, we're the ones hosting, and that's called a great opportunity."
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