HOOVER, Ala. — A season of missed opportunities ended, appropriately, with a game of missed opportunities for the Auburn baseball team, which lost to Georgia 3-2 in the elimination round of the SEC tournament at Regions Park Thursday.
And like that the Tigers’ hopes of making an NCAA regional in back-to-back years vanished, done in by a rule requiring teams to finish above .500 overall.
Auburn, at 29-29, didn’t make the cut.
“Anytime your season ends, it’s tough to accept,” said Tigers coach John Pawlowski, whose team lost six of seven to finish the season. “But we certainly put ourselves in this position. The rules are what they are.”
Bulldogs starter Alex Wood (5-7) threw his first career complete game, giving up two runs on seven hits and striking out eight for fifth-seeded Georgia (29-29), which kept its slim NCAA regional hopes alive with a victory.
The Bulldogs, who play the loser of South Carolina-Vanderbilt in an elimination game at approximately 7:30 p.m. ET Friday, need to win at least two more games to be postseason eligible.
“I told them, flat out, we don’t want to be the ‘sympathy team,’” Georgia coach David Perno said. “The team that played the tough schedule, had tough adversity during the year. We wanted to be the team that was respected. … I said, ‘If we come up short, if we don’t get where we want to go, at least show your identity today.’ I felt like we did that.”
Instead, Auburn became the SEC’s first sympathy team, one that won 15 games in the deepest conference in the country, had a top-10 strength of schedule and an RPI of 36, numbers that probably would have warranted an NCAA regional berth had the Tigers been eligible.
But a number of mid-week disappointments, a stunning ninth-inning collapse against Georgia three weeks ago and a flat final weekend in which it lost two of three to last-place Tennessee will keep Auburn’s name from being called during the selection show Monday.
It looked good early for the eighth-seeded Tigers. Casey McElroy hit a solo homer in the fourth and Tony Caldwell an RBI single in the fifth, giving Auburn a 2-0 lead
But the Tigers couldn’t add to it. They had first and third with nobody out in the fifth. Two strikeouts and a ground out later and Auburn was kicking itself for not adding to its advantage.
“Missed opportunities like that, especially against anybody in this league, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing, it’s going to be tough for you,” said senior first baseman Kevin Patterson, one of the strikeout victims.
The Bulldogs made them pay, rallying for all three of their runs in the sixth off Auburn ace Derek Varnadore (6-3), who threw a three-hit shutout against Georgia earlier this season.
After two singles, Zach Cone ripped an RBI double into the left field corner. Chase Davidson followed with a grounder to short that McElroy skipped to first. Two runs scored on the error, giving the Bulldogs a 3-2 lead.
“At the start I felt great. It was probably the best I’ve felt since the last time I played them,” said Varnadore, an Athens, Ga., native who wasn’t recruited by the Bulldogs. “But I think as the game went on, the ball kept creeping up. And it finally just came back to bite me.”
Auburn had no answer. Wood set down 11 of the last 12 batters, punctuating the win with a strikeout of senior Justin Hargett.
“For sure didn’t end the way I wanted it to end,” Patterson said. “I thought we had a squad that could go to the regional or super regional. It didn’t work out, so very disappointed.”