Yes, the top-seeded Tigers survived the fourth-seeded Gamecocks in Friday night’s Auburn Regional at Plainsman Park.
It certainly wasn’t pretty.
JSU knocked out Auburn starter Cory Luckie in the fifth inning. Auburn didn’t get its first baserunner until the fourth inning. The Gamecocks tied the game or took the lead three times.
Yet the Tigers did just enough to hold off Jacksonville State and put themselves into the all-important winners’ bracket.
“I told our players that this game is going to come down to the little things that happen during a game, and we showed great character battling through those things,” Auburn coach John Pawlowski said.
“Nothing came easy for us (Friday night). Jacksonville State, as they did the first time, gave us everything we could handle.”
Dan Gamache’s sixth-inning home run finally gave Auburn a lead it could keep, but the Tigers still needed insurance runs to stave off the Gamecocks (32-25).
Auburn scored runs every inning after the third, sparked by a three-run fourth.
“I thought that they battled hard,” JSU coach Jim Case said. “When we fell behind, we came back and took the lead.
“The difference in the game was that we couldn’t find a way to put up zeros from any point from the middle and on. They were scoring every inning.”
Auburn didn’t post too many scoreless frames either, but did enough to hold on.
Even Hubbard’s two-inning save came with some hiccups. Hubbard allowed an inherited runner to score as well as one of his own.
JSU had trimmed Auburn’s three-run lead to a run and had the tying run on base before Hubbard struck out Andrew Edge.
As Hubbard’s pitch whizzed by Edge’s swing, the senior right-hander made a 90-degree turn and unleashed a fist pump.
The emotion exemplified the feeling that Auburn did little more than survive Jacksonville State.
“It was very emotional because it was a big win,” Hubbard said. “It was hot, there was a huge crowd, and it was back-and-forth all game which made the atmosphere that much bigger. It was a huge win, and we are all pumped to get that victory.”
Casey McElroy provided insurance with an eight-inning home run before Hubbard worked a perfect ninth to earn his 10th save of the year.
Still, the game certainly didn’t follow the script Pawlowski would have liked. Luckie needed 36 pitches to escape the first inning, though he allowed just one run in the frame.
The Gamecocks tagged him for three more runs in the fifth before Pawlowski replaced him with Slade Smith with two outs. Smith gave up two runs — one earned — in his 2 1/3 innings to earn the win.
However, the game taxed Auburn’s pitching staff.
“Obviously in Game 1, you’d like to use as few pitchers as possible, but we knew coming into this ballgame that we were going to do whatever it took to win,” Pawlowski said. “Obviously, you want to stay in that winners’ bracket, and we knew that we were equipped to go with as many guys as we needed in the bullpen or a starter or whatever we had to do.”
Meanwhile, JSU starter Austin Lucas retired the first nine hitters he faced. It wasn’t until Justin Fradejas’ leadoff bunt single in the fourth that the Tigers got a runner on base.
“We were struggling in the first three innings and had to get something going there,” Fradejas said. “I was looking to get on base, and I got a good bunt down. Thankfully, that sparked a little rally and got us going offensively.”
Lucas, who struggled with a blister on the thumb on his pitching hand for much of the night, tried to battle but gave up five runs in 4 2/3 innings.
Case said he wasn’t sure that the blister hurt him, but thought Lucas didn’t pitch as well after he aggravated it in the second.
Behind Todd Cunningham’s 3-for-5, four-RBI performance, JSU stayed close. Cunningham even gave his team a short-lived lead in the fifth when he belted a home run down the left-field line.
Blake Seguin, the Gamecocks No. 9 hitter, also went 3-for-3 with three runs.
In the end, though, Auburn found a way to get through the opening game with an emotional fist pump — as well as a sigh of relief.