College Sports

SEC baseball tournament: Auburn eliminates Georgia

HOOVER, Ala. -- Nothing about Justin Bryant's ninth inning was easy.

Facing a Georgia team battling for its postseason life and trying to preserve Auburn's own NCAA regional hopes by holding on to a one-run lead, Bryant gave up a triple to Kyle Farmer and two walks to load the bases.

Colby May hit Bryant's next offering hard into left field, but May's shot headed straight into the glove of former Columbus High standout Bobby Andrews to give Auburn a 3-2 win in an SEC baseball tournament elimination game Wednesday.

Auburn will face the loser of Wednesday night's late game between South Carolina and Vanderbilt in an elimination game at 5:30 p.m. today.

"I knew it was hit hard; I put it in a bad spot, and he had a good swing," Bryant said. "I almost hit two knees to just start praying, but then I saw Bobby had a bead on it."

When Bryant first arrived at Auburn, he wanted to be a closer, but the Tigers (31-27) have used him as a reliever, a utility man and a designated hitter throughout his career before meshing the two roles this season.

Before surviving the ninth to earn his seventh save, Bryant came up big when the Tigers needed it in the eighth inning.

Held in check by Auburn starter Daniel Koger and reliever Derek Varnadore (CVCC) through the first seven innings as the Tigers built a 3-0 lead, Georgia (31-26) finally struck in the eighth, when pinch-hitter Nelson Ward and Conor Welton laced back-to-back RBI singles.

Bryant relieved Varnadore with men on first and second and struck out Curt Powell, the Bulldogs' best hitter, to end the eighth and set up a nerve-wracking ninth inning.

"It's the ninth inning, and anything can happen," Auburn coach John Pawlowski said. "We were very fortunate to come out with a win."

Auburn (ranked No. 57 in RPI after the win) and Georgia (No. 51) entered the SEC tournament badly needing at least one win, maybe more, to polish their NCAA tournament résumés, and losses in the opening round set up a high-stakes

elimination game between the two rivals Wednesday.

Needing a solid start, the Tigers turned to lefty Daniel Koger (4-5), and the freshman responded by scattering seven hits and one walk over 5 1-3 innings without giving up a run.

"It's a lot of pressure, but it's another thing to put the pressure aside and just play the game of baseball," Koger said. "We didn't have any errors today, and I just put the pitches in there and let the defense work."

Georgia countered with righty Michael Palazzone (2-7), a senior with plenty of experience, against an Auburn lineup that has struggled to hit with runners on base this season.

Needing to manufacture more opportunities, Pawlowski unleashed his base stealers -- Auburn ranks first in the SEC in steals -- and the Tigers swiped five bases. Leadoff hitter Jay Gonzalez reached first to start the first and third innings, stole second, then came around to score on Patrick Savage's RBI single and Creede Simpson's RBI groundout.

Bryant, a Georgia-killer who has hit four of his 10 career homers against the Bulldogs, landed the big blow with a homer to left off of Palazzone in the third.

Chased after 4 1-3 innings, Palazzone's start left Georgia coach David Perno questioning his decision to start ace Alex Wood on Tuesday night and Palazzone on Wednesday.

"In retrospect, I would have done something different with our starters," Perno said. "I probably would have gone a different route in Game 1 and given both Alex and Michael an extra day."

Now, Georgia has to go home and wait for the NCAA selection committee to pass judgment.

"I'm not in that business," Perno said. "We could've done a better job controlling it, but it's out of our hands. I think we're a good baseball team, and I'd like for us to get a shot."

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