The Bigger Hurt and rubber-arm reliever pave Auburn's unlikely path to Omaha
A year ago, Sonny DiChiara and Blake Burkhalter weren’t up to much. A week before, DiChiara’s junior season at Samford had ended in two NCAA Tournament losses. DiChiara had been a good but not great player, hitting .273 with 18 home runs, good for 2nd team All-Southern Conference selection. Burkhalter’s sophomore season had ended shy of the NCAA Tournament with Auburn, after a tough 25-27 campaign. Burkhalter pitched well, posting a 1.71 ERA, but most of his 21 innings came in mid-week games against no-name foes.
A year later, Sonny DiChiara and Blake Burkhalter became Auburn baseball immortals in leading Auburn baseball to the College World Series.
Facing a tough draw, playing at No. 3 Oregon State in Corvallis, DiChiara got 2 of Auburn’s 3 hits and provided another of his season-long run of magical moments with a 2-run blast in the 3rd inning that gave Auburn a 2-0 lead that the Tigers never relinquished. In the 6th, DiChiara walked and came around to score on Bobby Peirce’s double, followed by a squeeze play that stretched Auburn’s lead to 4-1. Pretty good for a game in which the Tigers managed a total of 3 hits and 2 walks in the entire game.
But after Oregon State struck for a 7th inning homer to narrow the lead to 4-3 followed by a Grant Forrester walk and a Jacob Melton single, Auburn coach Butch Thompson could wait no longer. He called for Burkhalter, who went from nearly an Auburn afterthought to the best fireman in the SEC.
Oregon State had 8 hits on the day and drew 4 walks, and Thompson clearly would have loved to get to at least the 8th inning before handing the ball to Burkhalter. After all, Burkhalter threw 26 pitches to grind out a save in Saturday’s 7-5 win against Oregon State. But with 2 on and 1 out in a 1-run winner-take-all game, Burkhalter came in with 8 outs left to send Auburn to Omaha.
He got all 8 in a row, fanning 5, none bigger than OSU DH Jake Dukart with the tying run 90 feet away from home plate and the lead run (what would have been the winning run) in scoring position at 2nd base. Dukart swung under a dying breaking ball and OSU never had another chance.
Auburn is a school with some larger than life athletic heroes. Bo. Big Hurt. The Round Mound of Rebound. Cam Newton.
Sonny D and Blake Burkhalter. Put them on the list.
The Bigger Hurt! Where would Auburn be without Sonny D?
— Chris Wright (@CWrightSDS) June 14, 2022
DiChiara is certainly an unusual pick. Listed at 263 pounds, DiChiara’s roly-poly physique and good-natured attitude are wonderful complements to a season where he just broke college pitching. A .392 batting average? 22 homers? 68 walks to 51 strikeouts? From 2nd team All-Southern Conference to SEC Co-Player of the Year? All of it is true.
And more, for the big guy who is the heart and soul of Auburn’s team. He homered in Game 1 and Game 3 against Oregon State and Auburn won. He didn’t homer in Game 2 and they didn’t win. Comparing anybody to Babe Ruth is silly. But comparing anybody to Sonny D. is kind of silly too … which is something.
High and deep! 💣@SonnyDichiara slugs his 22nd to get us started!
— Auburn Baseball (@AuburnBaseball) June 14, 2022
The other key has to be Burkhalter, who picked up his 15th save of the season on Monday, despite entering the season with 0 saves and 1 win in his Auburn career. Burkhalter has 66 strikeouts and just 7 walks in 44 innings pitched, holding opposing hitters to a sub-.220 batting average. On an Auburn team where the starting rotation isn’t particularly strong, the Tigers succeeded with a few big hits and a pitching staff that got the ball to Burkhalter.
But 8 outs? Sure it’s not the stuff of Old Hoss Radbourn, but it did call to mind old-time baseball closers like Rollie Fingers or Goose Gossage. Burkhalter can get 3 outs, but when Auburn needed him to stretch and not just double that number, but nearly triple it, no problem. Not only did he get the outs, he only needed 33 pitches to pull it off.
Maybe Butch Thompson raided the 1930s for DiChiara and the 1970s for Burkhalter. But this Auburn team, picked to finish (checks list) 7th — 7th!! — in the West by the SEC’s coaches in the preseason, checks all the sports cliché boxes from any era. Lovable underdogs, untried kids who got it together when their number was called … and now Super Regional champions.
Auburn is headed to Omaha, with a 260+ pound slugger and a rubber-arm reliever leading the way. Check that, with a couple of Auburn heroes leading the way.