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First-inning explosion sends Auburn to College World Series

Pushed to a deciding third game on the road, Auburn removed all doubt before the home team ever got up to bat. The Tigers are headed to the College World Series for the first time in 22 years after scoring 13 runs in the top of the first inning.

The Tigers rode their early lead to a 14-7 win over North Carolina on Monday to win the decisive third game of the super regional, with Judd Ward and Edouard Julien each driving in three runs.

“Our fans usually have different June plans,” Auburn coach Butch Thompson said. “I hope we wrecked those plans and we’ll see them in Omaha.”

Auburn’s Edouard Julien (10) reacts as he slides safely into home plate on a single by Kason Howell in the first inning against North Carolina to give Auburn a 4-0 lead during the NCAA Super Regional on Monday, June 10, 2019 at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett

The win was Auburn’s fifth in six games since radio play-by-play announcer Rod Bramblett and his wife Paula were killed in a car accident on May 25, between the SEC and NCAA tournaments. Bramblett, who graduated from Auburn in 1988, had called Auburn baseball games since 1993 before taking over football and men’s basketball in 2003.

“We’ve been thinking about them since his passing,” Auburn starter Tanner Burns said. “Winning the regional in Atlanta and winning this, it’s pretty special for us.”

Their tragic loss has been an inspiration to the Tigers, who after going 14-16 in the SEC have upset a pair of ACC powerhouses – Georgia Tech in the regional, North Carolina this weekend – to clinch the program’s fifth trip to Omaha, Neb., and first since 1997, coming from behind several times in the process.

Saturday, Auburn (38-26) scored nine runs in the eighth and ninth innings to overcome a late three-run deficit and beat the Tar Heels in the opener 11-7. After a 2-0 loss Sunday, the Tigers bounced back Monday with their first-inning explosion.

Ward drew the first of four Auburn walks to open the game, then blasted a three-run homer to right the second time through the order.

“We were patient,” Ward said. “We just stuck to the approach and put good swings on balls.”

By the time the half-inning was over, 49 minutes later, the Tigers had sent 17 batters to the plate and scored 13 runs on nine hits against four different North Carolina pitchers.

North Carolina pitchers Austin Bergner (45), left, and Connor Ollio (48) watch the top of the first inning from the Tar Heels’ dugout as Auburn scored 13 runs on nine hits to take control of the NCAA Super Regional on Monday, June 10, 2019 at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Ollio was one of four pitchers to work in the first inning against Auburn. Robert Willett

In last week’s regional at Georgia Tech, the Tigers won the first meeting with the hosts thanks to a Steven Williams three-run walk-off homer with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.

It was North Carolina’s first-ever super regional loss at home; the Tar Heels had been 6-0 when hosting with a chance to go to Omaha.

The College World Series begins Saturday. Auburn is one of four SEC teams in the field, along with Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and the Arkansas-Mississippi winner.

“Those guys are going to be able to come back to Auburn for the rest of their lives and there will be a legacy,” Thompson said. “There will always be a number, a year, connected to this accomplishment.”

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.