HOOVER — Brooks Fuller had to be shaking. Here he was, a true freshman at the SEC tournament, relieving standout Auburn closer Cody Greenhill with runners on second and third with one out in the bottom of the ninth inning of a one-run game.
The short story is that both those runners scored, LSU got a 4-3 victory, and Auburn's run through the SEC tournament came to an end after three days.
The long story makes the end hurt even more.
It began a day earlier. Both teams lost Wednesday to fall into the Thursday afternoon elimination game, but how each loss was still on the minds of the fans braving the heat of more than 90 degrees baking the stands at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium.
Auburn needed seven pitchers to navigate an 11-1 run-ruling at the hands of top-seeded Vanderbilt, and that was nothing compared to the pain LSU felt — the Tigers from Baton Rouge lost to Mississippi State in a 17-inning game that lasted nearly seven hours and didn't end until after 3 a.m.
Barely more than 12 hours later, longtime LSU coach Paul Mainieri was standing in front of his team and telling them, "Every day you show up to the field, you're liable to see something you've never seen before." And he wasn't talking about any part of that extra-innings marathon.
In a perfect world, Auburn coach Butch Thompson would have been able to keep Greenhill in the game. That was probably the plan when he brought the sophomore closer out of the bullpen with two outs in the bottom of the sixth inning. But 90 pitches over five innings on Saturday, 16 more in a two-out save Tuesday and 42 over 2⅔ innings Thursday is a lot of bullets for one arm. The kid they call "Bull" simply ran out of gas.
So after LSU led off the bottom of the ninth inning with back-to-back singles from Giovanni DiGiacomo and Saul Garza. DiGiacomo went to third on Garza's hit, and when Auburn tried to throw him out, Garza moved up to second. After Greenhill managed to get the first out on a lineout to left field, Thompson brought in Fuller to try to preserve a one-run lead.
"We thought Fuller was good," he said.
He's a freshman, but it wasn't his SEC tournament debut — he faced three batters against Vanderbilt the day before — and he was just five days removed from recording the final out of Auburn's extra-innings win at LSU in Baton Rouge on Saturday.
But Hoover is a much bigger stage, and it looked like the left-hander felt it. He spiked the first breaking ball he threw to pinch-hitter Chris Reid into the dirt, prompting catcher Matt Scheffler to come out from behind home plate in an attempt to calm him down. No luck — the second pitch brought the same result.
Only this time, Scheffler lost track of where the blocked ball went. And in his frantic efforts to find it, he kicked it into the grass out to the right of home plate. Fuller pointed in that direction, but Scheffler didn't see him.
Reid waved DiGiacomo home from third.
"The pitch before, when he blocked it in front, that's what I saw again. But he didn't see it, I guess, and he was just sort of turning and fumbling, and all of the sudden, the ball kicked out real quick," DiGiacomo said. "Then I broke for the plate."
An aside: Mainieri didn't initially plan to put in a pinch-runner for Garza at second base. Drew Bianco is the team's best option to do that off the bench, but the coach thought he might want him to hit in place of Hal Hughes in case Auburn brought a left-hander out of the bullpen, which it did with Fuller.
But in that situation, needing only contact into the outfield to bring the tying run home, Mainieri believed that Reid could come through in that spot, so he sent Bianco out to second base.
He wouldn't have scored on the wild pitch. By the time DiGiacomo began his slide into the plate, Auburn's Rankin Woley had located the ball, charged in from first base, and slid to the ground to grab it. But rather than eat the ball and play for the tie, the former LSU Tiger attempted to flip it blindly toward Scheffler at the plate.
The throw was wide and the ball got all the way to the railing in front of Auburn's third-base dugout. Bianco dove into the plate head first, igniting a celebration that carried LSU out of the first-base dugout and all the way up the third base line.
Scheffler hunched over, hands on knees. Woley and Fuller trudged slowly toward the dugout, one behind the other. Shortstop Will Holland dropped into a crouch near the pitcher's mound, almost as if he was frozen.
"I can’t wait to watch it and evaluate the play a little bit," Thompson said. He added: "That was a unique one for us. You’ve definitely seen the game get tied with someone trying to throw a great slider or breaking ball, but having the runner score from second was kind of an easy score after the ball got away."
There were a lot of bright moments for Auburn on Thursday. Starter Jack Owen limited LSU to one run on five hits over 5⅔ innings. A surely tired and overworked Greenhill battled for 2⅔ innings.
At the plate, Kason Howell hit an infield single and Judd Ward a double down the left field with two outs in the seventh inning that drove home two runs and gave Auburn a 2-1 lead. When LSU drew even in the bottom half of the frame, Edouard Julien put the blue-and-orange Tigers back on top with an RBI single up the middle in the eighth.
And even though they're going home from the SEC tournament earlier than they might have liked, Tuesday's win over Tennessee probably all but guaranteed that the team with 15 SEC wins and No. 20 RPI against the toughest schedule in the country will make an NCAA regional for a third straight season.
But that doesn't make a wayward bounce of the ball hurt any less.
"Tough way to lose it," Thompson said. "I’m disappointed — not mad or sad — that our journey ends here at Hoover.
"We’ll get back tonight, circle the wagons, keep working and wait for Monday to see where we’re going and start our preparation."