HOOVER – The end came when Justin Hargett ended a productive four-year career with a strikeout. Georgia had held on to beat Auburn 3-2 at Regions Park, eliminating the Tigers from Southeastern Conference Tournament and from contention for an NCAA regional.
Reality hits Auburn players as Georgia wins 3-2 in SEC Tournament/Todd Van Emst photo
But it started earlier – before Thursday’s bitter ending, even before the SEC Tournament. It d on Sunday, May 15, at Plainsman Park when Alabama scored three runs in the ninth inning to win 7-6 and avoid an Auburn sweep.
Going into that game, the Tigers needed just two more wins to qualify for a regional. They needed just two wins to clinch the West Division championship. With a midweek game at South Alabama, a series at last-place Tennessee and at least two games in the SEC Tournament, that seemed a foregone conclusion.
After assaulting Alabama’s pitching as few had, Auburn’s offense went to sleep that Sunday. Other than on Saturday at Tennessee, it never woke up again.
The Tigers lost two of three to the Vols, lost at South Alabama and were swept out of the SEC Tournament by South Carolina and Georgia. That adds up to six losses in seven games. After the Sunday game against Alabama, the Tigers scored four or fewer runs in every loss.
The result was a 29-29 record. A winning record is required for an NCAA regional. Auburn’s season ended on Thursday at Regions Park.
Thursday’s game was another chapter in an unhappy Auburn story.
Starting pitcher Derek Varnadore, dominant through five innings, gave up three in the sixth. The winning run scored when McElroy, at shortstop, fielded a routine grounder and threw it in the dirt. The ball got away from Kevin Patterson.
Auburn managed just one more hit the remainder of the game. Georgia starter Alex Taylor pitched his first complete game of the season, giving up seven hits.
John Pawlowski, at the end of his third season as Auburn coach, said the late-season swoon came almost from nowhere.
“I don’t think I can really put my finger on it,” Auburn coach John Pawlowski said. “We had opportunities, and certainly some of those opportunities we had today. We tried to shuffle the lineup. We tried to move guys down to try to get guys in, but it’s just one of those things that’s hard to put your finger on.
“You keep working hard and they guys gave us a good effort, but just like today… inappropriate, inopportune times to strike out when we really needed to put the ball in play. I can’t really put my finger on it. You know, it’s frustrating, obviously.”
Varnadore, who pitched a complete-game shutout against Georgia at Plainsman Park, was cruising in the sixth inning. But he couldn’t get out of the sixth.
“I felt great all day, probably the best I’ve felt since the last time we played them,” Varndadore said. “I think as the game went on my ball kept creeping up and it finally came back to bite me. I felt I could put the ball anywhere I wanted it. I felt good, then I missed some pitches and left the curveball over the plate, the changeup was a little off. That was when they got those runs.”
McElroy and Caldwell each had two of Auburn’s seven hits.
“Obviously, when the season ends abruptly, you know there are a lot of emotions going through our team right now,” Pawlowski said. “It’s obviously frustrating for a number of different reasons. I do want to say how much I appreciate the effort of our team and how hard they played. Our backs were against the wall for a good part of the season and they kept battling. I’m proud of the way they handled themselves and the way they competed every day.”
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