Auburn’s pitching has been solid in the College World Series. Can they keep it up against Arkansas?

Butch Thompson smirked and uttered one word to himself Monday afternoon in the bowels of Charles Schwab Field: Awesome.

Auburn’s eighth-year coach — a pitching specialist by trade — beamed with pride when he was informed starting pitcher Trace Bright set a program College World Series record with eight strikeouts during Auburn’s 6-2 win against Stanford in an elimination game in Omaha, Neb. Bright tossed five innings and gave up two runs on five hits while striking eight and issuing zero walks.

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Not bad for the junior right-hander, who not only bounced back from a rough Super Regional start against Oregon State eight days prior but who Thompson said afterward was “one hitter away” from coming out of the game in the second inning against Stanford.

“His bounceback outing from Corvallis to today, and hanging in there, the third, fourth and fifth was good,” Thompson said. “…For Trace to do what he did today, it absolutely gave us a chance.”

That’s all Auburn is asking for at this point, now one of six teams still standing in Omaha and one loss from elimination.

The Tigers’ pitching staff has given the team a chance through the first two games, turning in solid performances on the mound against both Ole Miss and Stanford. In 18 innings, Auburn’s pitchers have allowed six runs while striking out 29 and walking just three batters. That included a 16-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio during Monday’s win against one of the nation’s best offensive teams, which was held to just eight hits and two runs — none of which came after the second inning.

“They just shoved it in the strike zone,” Thompson said. “…They kept us on script as good as you can ask for in this setting, and it worked.”

While Bright was solid in his five innings of work, Auburn also got strong relief efforts from left-hander Tommy Sheehan and All-America closer Blake Burkhalter. Sheehan struck out three in 1 2/3 innings of work before exiting the game with the bases loaded and two outs in the seventh. In came Burkhalter, who struck out Brett Barrera swinging to end the inning.

“You know the bases are loaded, but you have to flush it,” Burkhalter said. “…I was right on the brink of walking him, but thankfully I had that strikeout and got us off the field.”

Burkhalter was lights out during 2 1/3 innings of work, striking out five and allowing just one hit to earn his 16th save of the season. The junior right-hander has been remarkable since the Super Regional against Oregon State, allowing just one run on three hits while striking out 12 in six innings of work out of the bullpen.

It has been a dominant return to form for Burkhalter after a couple of uneven outings to end the regular season and open the postseason.

“Honestly, it’s all starting to click at the right time,” Burkhalter said. “I can’t really like put a finger on where like what exactly what part of my game is getting better, but I know like my focus when I came come in the game I’m there first through nine innings ready to go. Just the mental aspect, that’s been locked since postseason play has come around, and everything is starting to click on the mound.”

The same can be said for Auburn’s pitching staff as a whole.

Joseph Gonzalez had a solid start against Ole Miss despite giving up four runs in five innings, as he struck out seven and walked just one. It wasn’t his best outing but one that should have been good enough to keep Auburn afloat, but the offense couldn’t find its groove against a dealing Dylan DeLucia. Carson Skipper followed with four strong innings, giving up just one run after entering the game with two men on and no outs in the sixth. He struck out six and walked one.

Through the first four days of action, with every team playing two games in Omaha, only Ole Miss’ pitching staff has allowed fewer runs (six) than Auburn’s seven in the College World Series. The Tigers’ 29 strikeouts lead all eight teams to make it to Omaha, while their three walks are second-best behind the Rebels’ two so far.

Auburn will try to keep it up Tuesday in another elimination game, this time against Arkansas. The Tigers and Razorbacks will square off at 6 pm on ESPN, with the winner moving on to face Ole Miss on Wednesday. Auburn will turn to junior right-hander Mason Barnett (3-2, 3.98 ERA), who has pitched well in two postseason appearances, giving up just one run on six hits in 9 2/3 innings of work, striking out 15 but walking six.

Barnett is the next piece in the blueprint Thompson laid out for his team in its quest to become just the fifth program in College World Series history to lose its first game but battle back to win a national title.

“I’m just hunting for every inch we can for our program,” Thompson said. “Thankful for today and excited about tomorrow.”

Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.

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