OMAHA, Neb. — Grit, their name is the Auburn Tigers.
And we know just where to start, for a team that refused to lose Monday in a 6-2 elimination victory over Stanford at the Men’s College World Series.
This is how sick the Auburn second baseman is:
During the half innings when the Tigers were at-bat and in their dugout Monday, Cole Foster was taken to the air-conditioned clubhouse, to escape the Omaha heat.
This is how sick he is:
After reviving Auburn’s CWS hopes and turning around the do-or-else game with a three-run double — just when the Tigers’ offensive frustration was about to go condition red — he was nowhere to be found in the post-game press conference. Even with the chance to be a star and take a bow.
“He should be sitting at the table visiting with us right now,” coach Butch Thompson said. “He’s probably getting IVs.”
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This is how sick he is:
That huge fortune-changing hit came in the sixth inning. When Foster reached second base, you’d think he’d be clapping his hands and celebrating as if he had just won the lottery. Instead, he looked as if the Auburn band had just marched over him.
“He barely pulled into second and dropped his head,” Thompson said. “One of the biggest hits of his life, and he’s trying to keep his head up.
“He’s struggling just health-wise to stay on the field. It’s pretty remarkable what he’s doing for us.”
It’s a virus — no, not that one — or something. Foster was so ill Saturday, he had to leave the Ole Miss loss early. For a player to exit the first College World Series game of his life, he must be two steps short of a coma.
But so it goes for Auburn, which just won its first CWS game since 1997.
Life in the loser’s bracket is harsh in Omaha. No margin for error, no time to blink . . . or be sick . . . or pay attention to the pain or the past. Consider, then, why the Tigers are still playing.
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So here was pitcher Trace Bright, who didn’t even get out of the first inning of his last start in the super regional. No time to dwell on that, though. “You want to bounce back,” he said. “You try and learn from it and move on.” He endured some early wobbles Monday and two Stanford runs, but steadied and struck out eight in five innings.
“I think I gained more respect for him today than ever,” Thompson said. “I thought he was one hitter away — I don’t know if he knows that — one hitter away of coming out in the third inning."
So here was Bobby Peirce, at the plate with the bases loaded in the sixth inning and Auburn down 2-0, starving for runs. First pitch, he fouls off his left shin and after about 30 seconds of rapid swelling, it looked as if there was a golf ball beneath his sock. No time to feel the pain, however. He worked a walk to force in a run.
Soon after, Foster came to the plate.
No time to think about how lousy he felt. Auburn’s offense — and season — was about to go over a cliff. The lineup that produced 51 runs in three games in the regional had been held to two runs in 15.2 innings in Omaha. By Thompson’s count, they had gone down on five 3-2 full count situations on Monday alone. Someone had to do something soon.
And then the sick guy did.
“When Cole hit the ball,” Thompson said, “that was a big exhale for our offense.”
Auburn suddenly led 4-2. The lead grew to 6-2, and all that was left was to squeeze the last hope from a hard-to-kill Stanford team that was 5-0 in elimination games in the NCAA tournament. Auburn had just the closer for that. Blake Burkhalter walked to the mound in the seventh inning with his 15 saves, struck out Brett Barrera with the bases loaded, and allowed one infield hit the rest of the way. He helped push the strikeout total for Auburn’s pitchers Monday to 16. They had 13 in the Ole Miss loss. That man smiling in the dugout is pitching coach Tim Hudson, who won 222 big league games and struck out a lot of batters himself.
So Auburn had found a way, with its sick, its infirm, its pitchers. “We bent them a little bit,” Stanford coach David Esquer said. “But they just wouldn’t break or crack.”
The Tigers even got a boost from a couple of national championship coaches.
Thompson was sitting in his hotel room Sunday night, pondering where to look for guidance on how to survive the perils of the loser’s bracket. He had learned that only four teams in the past 40 years lost their opener and ended up winning the title. Thompson’s idea light bulb went on: Why not ask those guys for advice? So he quickly got on the phone and left word for Ray Tanner and Pat Casey — the coaches who led South Carolina in 2010 and Oregon State in 2006 and 2018 back from 0-1 holes.
“Both of those men got back and both gave me paragraphs of taking me through the journey with their team,” he said. “Like I say, the man or woman or team that will never quit, they’ve got a chance. And I just want us to fight and I want us to attack. It was like they were excited to hear from me and they’re like, yea, this is what we did, this is what we talked about, this became our focus.
“I’m just hunting for every inch we can for our program. Every one of these teams had to climb a mountain. Everybody’s hot enough, everybody’s good enough. But these guys are giving all they got.”
Especially the hitting hero who Monday labored to run to second base.