There are those who have leveled withering criticism at Auburn baseball coach Steve Renfroe, but it was mistakes in the field that cost Auburn a chance at winning the NCAA regional at Plainsman Park on Sunday. A dropped ball on a tag at the plate, a ball lost in the sun, a booted grounder, a slide that missed second base--those were the things that hurt the Tigers worst in Sunday's 9-7 loss to Ohio State. Two drives to centerfield came up mere feet short of home runs. With the bases loaded in the eighth, Karl Amonite hit a rocket to left-center that was caught. Neither Renfroe nor Ohio State coach Bob Todd had anything to do with any of those things. They just happened. They happened just like Damon Duval's missed field goal against Florida happened and, just like Duval's miss, they cost Auburn a chance to win a championship.
To somehow blame coaching is to ignore reality. Auburn, like every other team, works hours on preventing just those kinds of things. It is the nature of baseball that sometimes they happen anyway. And sometimes they come in bunches. When they do, it usually results in a loss. That Sunday's loss was so bitterly disappointing to Auburn people was in itself a testament to the job Renfroe and his players have done this season. It was disappointing because Auburn was a No. 4 national seed, because it was playing at Plainsman Park. Those things were earned over the course of the season, earned by 42 wins against the nation's toughest schedule and 18 SEC wins. Those things were not given.
There is often a tendency not to give credit to the victor when upsets happen. Ohio State deserved what it got. The Buckeyes came here without their All-American pitcher and without a lot of respect. They left with plenty of respect and a regional championship. The trailed in all three of their games and won every one of them. They played Auburn twice in very tough environments and won both times. Had Auburn won Sunday, the Buckeyes would have been all but out of pitching. The advantage would have decidedly shifted to the Tigers in a winner-take-all second game. It didn't happen because the baseball gods decreed it wouldn't and because Ohio State played with toughness under pressure.
The season ended too soon for shortstop Chuck Jeroloman and his teammates.
Auburn was not the same team offensively after catcher/designated hitter Josh Bell was lost for the year with a broken finger. The lower part of the order became significantly less productive. It was easier to pitch around Bobby Huddleston and Amonite. Huddleston, Amonite, Chuck Jeroloman and Scott Schade were all playing hurt. Would a healthy Auburn team have gotten it done against Ohio State? We'll never know, but it should have been obvious to anyone who watched that the team that took the field Sunday played with all the heart and dedication it could muster. The pain of a disappointing weekend will subside in a little while and it will be time to look to next season. It promises to be another good one.
The pitching staff should be among the SEC's best. Though junior centerfielder Javon Moran, arguably the Tigers' best player, will probably be playing for money, there are talented players returning and another talented Renfroe recruiting class coming. That wasn't much consolation to Renfroe or his players as they walked off the field Sunday afternoon. They came to win and they fell short. They were hurt and they were disappointed, but as the days go by, they will be proud of a season that will be remembered as one of Auburn's best. And they should be.