AUBURN, Ala. (EETV) — Despite putting the first run on the board, the Auburn Tigers failed to extend their season as they fell to the No. 11 Ole Miss Rebels 7-4 in the first round of the SEC Tournament at the Hoover Met.
“I told them I appreciate their effort, especially this second half of conference play, in giving us an opportunity to be here tonight, and what they’ve done for our university, especially a lot of these guys who will not be returning for next season,” head coach Butch Thompson said.
Ryan Bliss brought the initial heat for the Tigers with a leadoff homerun. The homer marked Bliss' third leadoff homer of the season and the 15th of his career.
In the bottom of the first, Auburn starter Jack Owen (2-5) gave up a leadoff double which led to an Ole Miss run when a Rebel baserunner crossed the plate on an error. After a pair of strikeouts from Owen, a flyout ended the inning with a tied score of 1-1.
After giving up Bliss' homerun in the top of the first, Ole Miss' starting lefty pitcher Doug Nikhazy retired 14 straight Auburn batters. The Rebels jumped ahead in the third inning after knocking in four runs on five hits.
To finish out the frame, the Tigers turned to their bullpen, calling in Joseph Gonzales (0.1) to replace Owen, who gave up five runs in 2.2 innings.
In the top of the fifth, Auburn tallied another run that started with Nate LaRue's two-out walk. Thanks to an infield single by Judd Ward, LaRue reached second and scored on another single, this time hit by Garrett Farquhar.
The Tigers' best chance at redemption came when they once again called up their bullpen and sent Carson Skipper to the mound in place of Gonzales. Skipper pitched a season-high 3.2 innings, allowing only a single to the first batter he faced. In the process, Skipper struck out six, another season best, and retired 10 straight Rebels.
“I thought Carson Skipper gave us a chance after Ole Miss scored in the third inning,” Thompson said. “Carson really did a nice job for three frames. We shoved all our chips on the table with our best reliever the last three or four weeks and tried to get back in the ballgame.”
Ole Miss finally reached into their bullpen in the seventh when the Tigers came within one run of the lead. A double by Farquhar sent Bryson Ware home, and a Bliss single scored Farquhar. Bliss' hit marked his 27th multi-hit game this season, the most in the league. However, the 5-4 score would remain the closest Auburn got to tying the game.
“Every time I thought this group of guys may stop or pause or just think it’s too much, they kind of woke back up,” Thompson said. “And I kind of feel the same way if we were able to continue to play, but you get to a part of a season, and we put ourselves into a position where we had to perform. Tonight was one of those nights where it comes to an end, but the resilience kind of kept me going with this ballclub.”
“We hung in there,” Thompson added. “I thought we competed well against a special arm. Ryan Bliss is one of the best players in this conference.”
In the bottom of the seventh, a two-run homerun by the Rebels gave Ole Miss a three-run lead. The score was 7-4 when Will Morrison (0.1) took the mound and relieved Skipper. Auburn called on their bullpen once more in the eighth inning when Cody Greenhill (1.0) finalized his career at Auburn with a scoreless eighth.
The loss marks the end of the Tigers' 2021 campaign, where they went 25-27 (10-20). At the season's halfway point, Auburn sat at 2-13 in conference play, but thanks to a renewed team effort, the Tigers earned their fourth consecutive SEC Tournament appearance under Thompson. The team won three of its last four conference series to qualify for the Hoover-hosted tournament.
“I thought it was one of the best efforts I’ve seen out of young people,” Thompson said.
“The resilience kept me going. A lot of these guys like Ryan Bliss and Rankin Woley have raised our bar and our expectations. When we’re sitting 2-13 in the league at the halfway point, for them to have a winning record in the second half says a lot about what they’ve done and what quality people they are with how they were raised, by how they finished.”