Auburn vs Florida: The message from Josh Anthony was simple Saturday afternoon in the aftermath of Auburn’s series-opening loss to Florida in the Gainesville Super Regional: Stay true to yourself.
The mission is hardly as unassuming: Defeat the top-seeded and defending national champion Gators on Sunday, on their home field, to keep the season alive and live to see another day.
Yet that’s the scenario Auburn now faces after its 8-2 loss to Florida in Game 1 of the best-of-three series. The Tigers have their backs against the wall and face a season on the brink, their College World Series aspirations coming down to the nine innings that await them Sunday at 11 a.m. CT (ESPN) at McKethan Stadium.
“Playing our game got us where we are today, and if we lave that, I really don’t feel like we will win if we leave our identity,” Anthony said. “It’s key for us to keep within ourselves and execute like we know we can.”
Auburn will try to keep its season alive and extend the Super Regional another day, to a winner-take-all Game 3 on Monday at 7:30 p.m. CT. To do so, the Tigers will turn to Freshman All-American Tanner Burns (7-4, 3.12 ERA), and they will have to go through first-round MLB Draft pick Jackson Kowar (9-5, 3.38).
“Auburn’s obviously a very good team, and we knew that from before,” Florida shortstop Deacon Liput said. “The weekend’s far from over.”
Burns has put together a fine freshman campaign while making 16 weekend starts. The right-hander out of Decatur is coming off six solid innings in a regional win against Northeastern last week, and he heads into McKethan Stadium having put together some of his best performances of the year away from Plainsman Park. That includes seven innings of one-run ball in the SEC Tournament against Ole Miss last month, as well as seven scoreless innings at Alabama in April.
Burns has the added benefit of experiencing a start in Gainesville already, though it was hardly his best effort. On April 27, he tossed four innings and allowed three runs and three hits in an 11-5 win against the Gators — the Tigers’ lone win in four tries against Florida this season.
Auburn hopes Burns can turn in a better effort, even if the Tigers want a similar result.
“We love Tanner,” Anthony said. “We’re going to go back and back up Tanner just like we back up Casey (Mize).”
On the other side will be Kowar, another dangerous right-hander in the Gators’ seemingly never-ending arsenal of arms. The Tigers are no stranger to him, either, having teed off on him in that same April 27 contest. In that outing, Auburn plated seven runs — five of which were earned — on eight hits in 4 1/3 innings, making for easily the shortest outing of his season.
“He’s going to pound the zone,” Anthony said. “He’s going to throw a lot of strikes. As a hitter, it’s our job to hit the strikes, so it’s going to be a competitive game tomorrow.”
Kowar has struggled of late, however. Over his last three starts, the junior right-hander has allowed 18 runs (14 earned) on 27 hits in 17 2/3 innings of work. During that span, he has walked nine, struck out 16 and posted a 7.13 ERA.
The Gators hope for a return to form for Kowar, and they know that’s what they will need to clinch another trip to Omaha.
“This time of year, I think the thing we’ll talk about (Sunday) is a leadoff walk in the second led to a run and a leadoff walk in the third led to a run, and sometimes those mistakes that you make end up costing you a game, and sometimes a game costs you a season,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “We’re going to have to be as good as Brady was (Saturday), and we’re going to have to have some really competitive at-bats.”