Staring SEC Tournament elimination and likely the end of their season in the face, 10-seed Auburn responded with a 3-2 win over 8-seed Georgia on Wednesday afternoon at Regions Park in Hoover, Ala.
Last year, Georgia eliminated Auburn 3-2 in the SEC Tournament. The Tigers returned the favor in dramatic fashion staving off a ninth inning rally.
"It's been the theme all year, here we are again. Ninth inning, anything can happen, and we come out with a win. I'm proud of our team for responding well today," coach John Pawlowski said. "Daniel Koger outstanding job in that environment. I'm just really pleased with our club tonight."
Auburn utility player Justin Bryant hit a solo homerun and earned a save throwing 1.1 innings of relief, but it wasn't without some extremely tense moments in a thrilling ninth inning.
Bryant allowed a one-out triple to Kyle Farmer and after a groundout by Brett DeLoach, the real drama started. Bryant walked Hunter Cole, then hit Peter Verdin with a breaking ball, but home plate umpire Scott Kennedy ruled Verdin leaned into the pitch. Verdin drew a walk two pitches later to load the bases for Georgia with two outs.
UGA's Colby May then jumped on the first pitch from Bryant and smoked a hard line drive into left-field, fortunately for Auburn it was right to Bobby Andrews for the last out of the game.
"To do that in the SEC Tournament is a big deal," Bryant said. "To get the save and a win and push us further along in the SEC Tournament is huge for me."
Bryant called catcher Caleb Bowen a "brick wall" post-game, and for good reason. Bowen blocked four Bryant pitches in the dirt during that crucial ninth, each would have allowed the Georgia runner to score from third and resulted in a tie game.
Freshman pitcher Daniel Koger was resilient throwing 5.1 innings, allowing zero runs on seven hits, while walking just one and striking out one. Koger's mission was ignoring the pressure of a must-win game, and his first SEC Tournament start, and playing baseball. Mission accomplished.
"It's a lot of pressure, but we had to put the pressure aside and just play baseball," Koger said. "I don't think there were any errors today. We scored some runs early and that allows the pitcher to just throw pitches and the defense to make plays."
AU was led at the plate by Patrick Savage (2-for-3, RBI), Jay Gonzalez (1-for-4, 2 runs), and Bryant (1-for-2, RBI, run, 2 walks).
Auburn wasted no time getting on the scoreboard as Gonzalez led off the game with a walk for the second straight day. He then stole second base and later scored on a Savage RBI single up the middle.
Georgia threatened in the bottom half with back-to-back singles by Levi Hyams and Farmer with one away, but Koger was able to get two straight outs to end the frame with no damage.
After quiet second innings from both squads, Auburn was back to work in the third.
Gonzalez again reached base to start the frame singling to left-field, then stole second and advanced to third on a throwing error by the catcher. Creede Simpson brought Gonzalez home with a RBI groundout to shortstop. The Tigers weren't finished as two batters later Justin Bryant hit a solo homerun over the wall in left field. It was Bryant's 10th RBI against Georgia in his career.
Koger again faced a bit of trouble in the fourth inning allowing a pair of singles by Cole and May, but like the first inning, Koger responded getting Joey Delmonico to fly out to Gonzalez in right to end the inning.
Simpson led off the fifth with a single, then stole Auburn's fourth base in just over four innings. Bryant's one-out walk spelled the end of the day for Georgia starter Michael Palazzone. The Bulldogs went to reliever Blake Dieterich, who bailed out the Bulldogs getting fly outs from Savage and Zach Alvord to end the fifth.
Bowen's stolen base in the sixth inning gave Auburn five for the game. The Tigers' finished with five, just one off the single game SEC Tournament record set by Vanderbilt in 1980 and Florida in 1977.
Georgia continued to put pressure on Koger in the sixth inning after singles by DeLoach and Verdin gave the Bulldogs two men on with one out. That marked the end of the day for Koger, who exited the game after 5.1 innings to make way for Derek Varnadore. Varnadore did the job getting a fly out and groundout to end yet another UGA threat. Pawlowski said there was no way he wasn't bringing in Varnadore facing a must-win situation, as opposed to saving him for a potential Thursday start.
"Our situation was we have to win today. If we don't win today, there's no tomorrow," said Pawlowski.
But Varnadore couldn't completely close the door on Georgia, giving up two runs in the eighth inning off RBI singles from pinch-hitter Nelson Ward and Conor Welton. AU reliever Bryant, who homered earlier in the game, entered the game with men on first and second and two outs, and retired Curt Powell.
Varnadore finished throwing 2.1 innings of relief, allowing two runs on four hits. Auburn pitchers stranded 14 Georgia runners on the day.
With most NCAA regional predictions placing Auburn on the outside looking in, Pawlowski said post-game his team hasn't talked about the NCAA Tournament. But they know what they have to do.
"Nobody is talked about we have to win this many games to go to the tournament. We know what we have to do," said Pawlowski. "Our focus is playing for tomorrow. That's been our theme, that's our focus, and let the committee decide. We can only play hard for 27 outs."
Pawlowski said post-game that left-fielder Cullen Wacker is still day-to-day and is likely only available in a designated hitter role. First baseman Garrett Cooper remains not available.
One of Trey Cochran-Gill (5-2, 3.67), Dillon Ortman (1-1, 3.20) or Cory Luckie (2-1, 3.42) will likely start for the Tigers on Thursday. Auburn will face South Carolina at 4:30 p.m. CT on Thursday afternoon.