Auburn baseball opened fall practice Thursday with their first full squad workout at Plainsman Park. It will be the Tigers’ first practice on the renovated playing surface.
“We can't wait to get out on the baseball field today at Plainsman Park, renovated facility here with our surface,” head coach Butch Thompson said. “The softball program has been phenomenal to us, letting us work out a little bit. To be able to get out on the field now with having every player when I address the team, when we start, to have every player instead of maybe one position at a time is going to be neat.”
Auburn returns 17 starters from last year’s team that advanced to its second NCAA regional in the last three seasons and finished with its highest win total since 2010. That group includes All-American starting pitcher Casey Mize, who went 8-2 with a 2.04 ERA last season and was recently named the No. 5 MLB Draft prospect entering the 2018 season by D1Baseball.
Mize will participate in a throwing program this fall, but will not throw any bullpen sessions. The Springville, Alabama native is still dealing with an arm injury that caused him to miss four starts last season. Davis Daniel will also not throw off a mound this fall.
“It's just a feature to give both of them an amount of rest,” Thompson said. “We try to pitch them two out of the three phases and we have so many new pitchers we need to look at start teaching and growing, we thought the throwing program, not throwing competitive to hitters, would give them the best chance to have the best spring in 18.”
Thompson considers shutting down Mize to be a measure of precaution.
“I think he feels great. We haven't had been throwing much. Doing a lot of rehab,” Thompson said. “I'd call it pre-hab. Rehab is like getting back from something, pre-hab is more of continuing to see how strong we can get and give us maybe a better chance of getting through that season without having to miss a start or two. That's the goal, but we will start throwing back Oct. 23. I think he feels great today.”
Mize said that his harm feels “better than normal,” but noted that he and Thompson are on the same page moving forward.
“Yeah, so, it was a forearm strain in the season, and it kind of kept up and down, as you guys remember, and it got up during USA,” Mize said. “Before I even went coach told me, if you feel anything, if you feel any discomfort, probably shut it down. I hate it, but I called it and said, ‘Hey, coach, I feel it.’ Kind of wanted to stay, but he was like, no, let’s go ahead and shut it down.”
The absence of Mize and Davis will give some of the younger pitchers a chance to work with new pitching coach Steve Smith, who came over from Baylor. Thompson said Tanner Burns is “really good, as advertised,” and noted that freshmen Jack Owen and Ryan Hoerter have been impressive so far. Thompson likes what he’s seen from the pitching staff, but acknowledged bullpen sessions can only tell him so much.
“It’s one thing to watch a bullpen and somebody try to hit a target, it’s another thing for a hitter to stand in the box,” Thompson said. “You start getting more of an appreciation of where everybody’s skill level is at and probably get a better read.
Auburn returns all of its starting infield from a season ago, but some question marks still remain, especially at the catcher position. Of the four catchers on the roster, Mike Rojas is the only one returning. Brett Wright and Chase Hall both transferred from junior college while Steven Williams is a freshman. All four will battle for the starting job this fall.
“It’s a huge question mark,” Thompson said. “The catching position, having two seniors last year with Blake Logan and Damon Haecker, I don’t have a percentage but I know it’s really, really high, probably 90-95 percent of the innings played last year were by those two guys that are gone. We’re glad to have Blake Logan part of our program, still helping us out.”