Against all odds, No. 14 Auburn baseball went to Corvallis, Oregon and pulled out a win in the Super Regionals to claim a ticket to Omaha.
“Words can’t describe how exciting that was, just out there in the moment living it up,” said junior pitcher Blake Burkhalter. “It was amazing for the first three seconds until I was at the bottom of a dog pile.”
After starting the season unranked and projected to finish next-to-last in the SEC, Auburn’s trip to the College World Series will be the sixth in Auburn program history and already the second under the tenure of head coach Butch Thompson.
The old saying proves true again: “defense wins championships.” Despite getting outhit 8-3, Auburn (42-20) played flawless defense in a 4-3 win to stun No. 3 Oregon State (48-18) and move on to the College World Series for the second time in three NCAA Tournaments.
The Tigers stuck out 15 Oregon State hitters and stranded nine men on base while committing no errors in a gutsy win.
Offensively, Sonny DiChiara made the difference. He recorded two of Auburn’s three hits, going 2-for-2 and reaching in all four plate appearances, with a home run, single, walk and hit by pitch. His 22nd homer of the year in the third inning was Auburn’s first hit of the game.
Closing the door and striking out five, Burkhalter delivered a gutsy, 2.2-inning save after taking over in a messy situation for Carson Skipper in the seventh inning. The reliever was as dominant as could be, retiring all eight opposing hitters for his 15th save of the season.
“I don’t think [Burkhalter] is a closer or a set-up pitcher. He’s a competitive moment pitcher,” said head coach Butch Thompson. “I’m always wondering if Burkhalter is my last line of defense in the game too early. It was not today, and he was great.”
After Mason Barnett began strong in his start, he ultimately gave way to the bullpen after 4.1 innings. He only allowed one run on five hits, walking three and sitting down five on strikes, but the Beavers’ lefty-filled lineup forced Auburn to go to Carson Skipper with one out in the fifth inning.
Starting out on the right foot, Skipper fanned his first two batters and retired his first five hitters before getting into trouble in the seventh inning. Although he gave two two runs on three hits in the seventh, his two-inning, five-strikeout performance boosted him to 6-3 on the season and passed the baton to a lights out Burkhalter to seal the deal.
Although Oregon State starter Jaren Hunter had Auburn’s offense out to a slow start with no hits through the first two innings, DiChiara got Auburn started in the third inning as he did in game one, with a two-run home run to make it 2-0 after Cole Foster’s walk.
However, Oregon State got right back at Auburn and cut the lead in half in the bottom of the first when Justin Boyd came in to score on a groundout after his triple went over Bello’s head and off the left field wall with one out.
With the Auburn bats quiet once again, the Beavers threatened to take over in the fifth. After Wade Meckler won the race with Barnett to first base for an infield single, a walk ended Barnett’s outing.
Coming in with two on and one out, Skipper looked anything but intimidated in a win-or-go-home game. He struck out his first two batters he faced to end the fifth and give Auburn the opportunity to tack on to its lead in the sixth.
Even though he had retired the previous six batters via the groundout, Oregon State went to its bullpen in the sixth with Hunter at 75 pitches, and Auburn tacked on two more.
After DiChiara walked and Pierce doubled down the right field line to get runners on second and third, a Brooks Carlson ground ball to second was mishandled and, after the review overturned the call, Carlson beat the throw at first and everyone was safe.
Immediately looking to catch Oregon State off guard and add onto the damage, Brody Moore laid down a bunt to the right side. It was picked up by the charging first baseman and tossed to the plate too late. Pierce scored to put Auburn up 4-1.
With a three-run advantage and having retired the past five, Skipper returned to the mound for the seventh inning. Following up a leadoff single, Boyd launched his second extra-base hit of the game, but this time it went way over the fence for a two-run homer. The big swing made it 4-3, and after a walk a single ensued, Burkhalter took over for Skipper with two on and one out.
Burkhalter, who has not looked like his best self as of late, returned to mid-season form in the seventh inning and, like Skipper, punched out the first two batters he saw to strand two and send things to the eighth inning with Auburn up by one.
“We always say the relievers job is to get the first guy out,” Thompson said. “Skipper did that, and Burkhalter did that when they first came in the ballgame. I thought that was a key.”
He did not look back from there. No. 40 in orange made his name known with two more perfect innings to win the game, ending the ninth by getting Oregon State’s top three hitters in the order.
In the end, Oregon State notched five more hits than Auburn. It even got more extra-base hits, but Auburn stranded nine Oregon State runners and committed no errors in the game, and it earned them a trip to the College World Series.
The one error in the game: the bobbled grounder at second base by Oregon State in the seventh inning, costed the Beavers a run and made the difference in a one-run ballgame.
In the end, veteran presence from guys who have been to the College World Series before helped Auburn have the calm, steady approach it needed to take down a team that thrives off of mistakes from its opponents.
“To be able to go back to Omaha so soon is kind of a testament to a few guys like Brody Moore, our shortstop, Kason Howell, our centerfielder, and Carson Skipper, one of our pitchers that was on that team in 2019,” Thompson said. “They've done a great job. We have a good program.”
As its first opponent in Omaha, Auburn will face a familiar opponent in SEC West foe Ole Miss, who it dropped two of three to to kick off SEC play this season. That game will take place at 6 p.m. CST on June 18th. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2, once again.
Those two aren’t the only SEC West clubs to join the party. The Tigers and Rebels will join No. 5 Texas A&M and Arkansas in Omaha this coming week. Set to join the SEC in 2025, Texas and Oklahoma are making appearances in the College World Series as well.
“I just love these guys so much,” DiChiara said. “And you know, we get two more weeks together, or however many games we have promised, that’s how long we have together as a group … We’re just going to play to the best of our ability and live it up.”
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Noah is a senior in journalism from Salem, Alabama. He joined the Plainsman in August of 2021 after transferring in from Southern Union Community College.