HOOVER - Justin Bryant saw Colby May swing hard. He heard the tell-tale sign of bat meeting ball. And for a fleeting moment, his heart sank.
Justin Bryant (3) celebrates with his teammates after victory over Georgia/Todd Van Emst photo
But he saw left fielder Bobby Andrews and he knew he had escaped. Andrews gathered in the line drive and Auburn held on to beat Georgia 3-2 on Wednesday in the Southeastern Conference Tournament at Regions Park.
The Tigers (31-27) advanced to play the loser of Wednesday night's game between No. 2 seed South Carolina and No. 5 seed Vanderbilt on Thursday at 4:30 p.m. Georgia (31-26) was eliminated.
"I knew it was hit hard," Bryant said. "I put it in a bad spot and he gave it a good swing. I almost hit two knees and started praying. But as soon as he hit it I looked out there and Bobby had a good bead on it. It gave us all a big scare for a second."
The final play finished off a harrowing ninth inning.
A 3-0 Auburn lead had been slice to 3-2 in the bottom of the eighth against Derek Varnadore, who ad relieved starter Daniel Koger in the sixth. Bryant got the final out in the eighth and finished it off in the ninth for his seventh save. But it didn't come easily.
Kyle Farmer's one-out triple put the Bulldogs oh so close. Bryant, whose out pitch is a slider that frequently dives into the dirt, put his faith in catcher Caleb Bowen. And it was well-placed. Bowen blocked four pitches, one in spectacular fashion.
With Farmer dancing on third and Auburn's infield drawn in, Brett DeLoach grounded hard to shortstop. Dan Glevenyak looked Farmer back to first and threw a strike. Hunter Cole walked. Peter Verdin was hit by a pitch but was called back because he leaned into it. Auburn coach John Pawlowski paid a visit to Bryant, who walked Verdin on a 3-2 pitch to load the bases.
That brought May to the plate. He jumped on Bryant's first pitch, Andrews caught it and the Tigers lived to play another day.
"To be able to do that in the SEC Tournament is a humongous deal," said Bryant, a senior from Oneonta. "I take pitching seriously. Having this guy (Bowen) behind the plate gives you confidence. The man is a brick wall. You can throw anything you want to. Being able to get the save and push us on in the tournament is huge to me."
Bryant didn't limit his contribution to pitching. Also the designated hitter, he hit his fourth home run of the season in the third inning, continuing his career assault on Georgia pitching. Two years ago, Bryant drove in seven runs in a game against Georgia. Earlier this season, he had four hits against the Bulldogs.
What is it about Georgia?
"I've been asked that about three times today," Bryant said. "I couldn't tell you. It's just the SEC Tournament and your focus is up a little bit. It's nothing personal against Georgia"
Auburn's heroes were plentiful:
* Koger, a true freshman from Huntsville, pitched 5 1/3 scoreless innings in his first SEC Tournament start. Derek Varnadore gutted out 2 1/3 innings, giving up two runs on four hits.
* Glevenyak, third baseman Zach Alvord and first baseman Patrick Savage made big-time defensive plays as the Tigers played a errorless game.
* Savage had two of Auburn's seven hits.
The Tigers, 6-1 losers to Florida on Tuesday, broke through in the first inning when leadoff hitter Jay Gonzalez walked and scored on Savage's single. In the third, Gonzalez singled, stole second, went to third on a throwing error and scored on Creede Simpson's groundout. Bryant's homer made it 3-0.
Auburn was done scoring. Georgia finally broke through in the eighth on run-scoring singles by Nelson Ward and Conor Welton, setting the stage for the frantic ninth.
Pawlowski said his players came to compete in the wake of Tuesday's loss.
"I'm really proud of our team," Pawlowski said. "I thought our team responded well today. Daniel Koger, an outstanding job to go out there in that environment. I thought he did a tremendous job.
"A couple of plays I thought were real important. First or second inning, Zach Alvord made a tremendous play on a bunt. Then Caleb Bowen, to have the faith to block that breaking ball in the bottom of the ninth. Can't say enough about what JB did. Justin Bryant is one of the truest competitors we have on the team."
Pawlowski said he has not talked about NCAA regional possibilities with his players.
"We are talking about this tournament," Pawlowski said. "They know what we have to do. Our focus is let's play tomorrow and let the committee decide what they are going to decide."
Pawlowski said he had not decided who will start on the mound Thursday. He mentioned freshman Trey Cochran-Gill, sophomore Dillon Ortman and senior Cory Luckie as possibilities.