And so ends the best Auburn year ever
This is the way the best Auburn year ever ended. Not with a bang, but a swing and a miss. Not with a national championship, but a postseason run heard 'round the world.
The Auburn baseball team won't win the ultimate prize, not after losing a two-day elimination game to Louisville 5-3, but the Tigers can put the bats and balls away for now having earned an incredible amount of respect.
They did something no team at their school had done in 22 years. They did something no team from their state had done in 20 years. They earned the right to compete in the College World Series - and compete they did.
In their first game in Omaha, they took a three-run lead to the bottom of the ninth before losing the lead and the game to national seed Mississippi State. In their second and final game at TD Ameritrade Park, despite having their hearts ripped out in that opener, they took national seed Louisville to the last pitch. They loaded the bases to put the go-ahead run at bat with two outs in the bottom of the eighth, and they sent the tying run to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.
Of course they did. Of course they didn't go quietly. It's who they were, time and again. Winners don't always win their last game.
It was the second record-breaking and heartbreaking, inspiring and maddening journey of the spring for Auburn athletics. Your football-first mileage may vary, but any academic year that includes trips to the Final Four and College World Series has to be on the short list for your school's best year ever.
Before Auburn did it, no school in this state had ever been to the Final Four and College World Series in the same year because no school in this state had ever been to the Final Four - period. The Tigers made history on so many levels this spring, you can't find a better combined year in school history in two of the three sports that matter most to most members of the Auburn family.
That football didn't reach that level, winning a bowl game after losing five times and not playing for the SEC or national championships, may drop a little rain on the larger victory parade, but it's worth noting something here as the curtain drops on Auburn Athletics 2018-2019. A college athletics department, done right, is more than a football program. It's also more than a place to display big, shiny trophies.
If you focus only on the final scores from Minneapolis and Omaha, if you subscribe to the blustery championship-or-bust philosophy, you're missing the big picture - and a lot of small, powerful moments that make it all worth watching.
Look at Duke, traditional basketball power. Duke is going to have three of the top 10 players chosen in Thursday's NBA Draft, including top pick Zion Williamson. Duke did not reach this year's Final Four - or the ones in 2018, 2017 and 2016. Somehow, Coach K and company soldier on.
See Mississippi State, traditional baseball power. State is making its second straight appearance in the College World Series, its 11th overall. The Bulldogs are in search of their first national championship. Not just in baseball. In any sport.
But guess what? If they're not the last team standing in Omaha, the Left Field Lounge at Dudy Noble Field still will be packed and smoking again next season.
Getting to your sport's ultimate stage is a victory even if you don't win that final game. In that place on campus where they do display the trophies, Auburn can add one from the 2019 Final Four and another from the 2019 College World Series. In those sports, in a single year, on the Plains or any other place in this state, it's never gotten as good as that.
It's given new meaning to That's so Auburn in the best possible way.