No one around the Auburn baseball program has forgotten the feeling of last season’s agonizing defeat at the hands of Florida State in the Tallahassee Regional of the NCAA Tournament.
The Tigers were one strike away from defeating the Seminoles and hosting a Super Regional inside Plainsman Park in Auburn with a chance to advance to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.
Florida State would go on to rally and defeat the Tigers in back-to-back games to eliminate Auburn from the NCAA Tournament. Instead of Auburn celebrating its first Super Regional appearance since 1999, heartbreak was the final result for the 2017 season.
As the Tigers move towards Opening Day of the upcoming 2018 season, Auburn star pitcher Casey Mize is ready to move on from last season’s disappointment. In fact, the final two games against Florida State last season have created a motto for this season – finish.
“With us being so close last year, it’s frustrating we didn’t get what we wanted or what we thought we deserved,” Mize said. “It is a teaching point. That was one of the most valuable life lessons I’ve learned – finishing. My thought process has been finish. We were one pitch away from a Super Regional and we didn’t finish. That’s been a common theme. We are trying to finish everything we do around here. It does come down to that one inch or one pitch. When we are running sprints, touch the line, get that last inch, finish.”
Mize had a breakout season for Auburn in 2017, finishing the year with an 8-2 record and a 2.04 ERA, which ranked third in the Southeastern Conference and 25th in the country. He struck out 109 batters – the most for an Auburn pitcher since 1999 – while issuing just nine walks over 83.2 innings.
Entering his junior season, Mize has been tabbed a preseason All-American and is ready to step into the leadership role that was previously filled by former Auburn starting pitcher Keegan Thompson.
“I’m not going to self-proclaim an ‘ace’ role or anything like that,” Mize said. “I think that has to be earned. I’m not going to force my knowledge or wisdom on anybody else. I want them to engage with that. If I see something, I definitely will approach guys. I have more confidence with that and say ‘Hey, I saw this, maybe you should try this.’ Or maybe, I’m showing them how I grip a certain pitch.
“I’m just trying to give any information I have to make everybody better. Keegan did that for me last year. I want to return that and do that for other people, because I can’t tell you how much it benefitted me.”
After leaning on Keegan Thompson for leadership with his team a season ago, Auburn head coach Butch Thompson is ready for Mize to step into that role.
“Casey had someone ahead of him that showed him that roadmap – that showed him how to navigate and work,” Butch Thompson said. “Keegan took Casey under his wing. He threw with him in practice, then on Friday nights he showed him out to get guys out. I hope Casey took every bit of that in. He sure did a good job of following the leader, but now Keegan is with the Chicago Cubs.
“Keegan has passed that baton to Casey. So Casey has to do that for (sophomore pitcher) Davis Daniel or (freshman pitcher) Tanner Burns or any of these young guys. Casey’s got to go out and show the roadmap. He’s got to invest in others. It’s Casey’s turn, and Casey’s role this year is different. Casey is going to have to step up. It’s not just about him being the Friday night guy and doing a great job there. It’s also about leaving that legacy. He’s got to help these other guys. I’m seeing some of that stuff on a daily basis that no one else is paying attention to. That gives me hope that our program is creating the right culture.”
Mize battled an off-and-on forearm strain during the last half of the 2017 season, which has limited him this fall. But Mize said that he is right where he wants to be as he begins to ramp up his training for his junior campaign.
“I feel really good. I had a little hiccup last year with the forearm strain,” the Springville, Alabama, native said. “I’ve been doing a lot of therapy, lifting heavy trying to pack on some weight. I started my throwing program recently and I feel really good. Physically, I feel really good.
“Mentally, I’m ready for the season. I love what I’ve seen from our guys so far.”
The junior right-handed pitcher features a fastball that ranges from 94-97 mph and a splitter-changeup that wipes out hitters in strikeout counts. The majority of college pitchers rely on a straight changeup, but Mize relies on his splitter as his out pitch.
“I have friends in the SEC, so after the season we are all talking, and the thing that was brought up to me was, they just don’t see a split-change very often, especially from a starter,” Mize said. “It’s just different. That’s what I believe makes it so successful.”
Mize spent the past summer playing on the 2017 USA Baseball Collegiate National Team, which is comprised of the top college players across the country.
Mize threw seven scoreless innings with eight strikeouts in two appearances for Team USA. The Americans defeated Chinese Taipei, Cuba and Japan in series over the summer.
“It was awesome,” Mize said about his national team experience. “I was around the best players in the country, which was awesome. I knew a lot of guys on the team so it was fun to be with them. Even players from California and Oregon, I got to learn a lot of different things from them. It was a really good learning experience.”
Entering his MLB Draft-eligible season on the Plains, Mize was tabbed as the No. 5 prospect in college baseball by D1Baseball.com. Although appreciative for the honor, Mize isn’t concerned about his future in professional baseball yet.
“I’m very thankful for it,” Mize said. “It’s a great honor. It’s a way-too-early ranking. I can’t take it for more than what it is. Just to be in that conversation is awesome. I just want to keep working hard.”
Thompson, who has sent a handful of players to the major leagues, is excited about this upcoming season for Mize and the challenges it will bring.
“In the last three years, I’ve had seven boys make it to the big leagues as a pitcher,” Thompson said. “Casey doesn’t stand in the back of the line with any of them. They’re all great men doing what they dreamed about their whole life. Casey doesn’t take a backseat to any of those guys.
“What he has to do now though, is navigate a season where the spotlight is all on him. He has to continue to work everyday and handle adversity. He’s a fifth-ranked prospect because of skill. Now his mental makeup is going to be tested.”
Casey Mize (32) pitches vs. South Carolina on March 31, 2017. File Photo
Thompson said a challenge for him and his team this season will be helping Mize deal with the bright spotlight.
“This is when Casey Mize deserves every player and every coach on our roster to give him our best effort to help support him,” Auburn’s third-year head coach said. “None of these other boys I’ve had have had that tag of a top prospect going into their draft-eligible season. What I want him to feel going into this season is, ‘You’ve got the spotlight put on you, but we’ve got your back. Auburn has your back.’”
2018 could be Mize’s final season at Auburn, and he plans to lead the Tigers to a big season.
“I’d like to be that roadmap, that foundation for the weekend, and set the tone for a series,” Mize said. “That is what a true Friday night starter would do for his team. That is what I plan to do and what I hope to do.”
Auburn will open its season on Feb. 16 as it hosts Longwood in a three-game, weekend series. First pitch for the season opener is set for 5 p.m. CST.