The No. 22 Tigers have had eight months to put an extra-innings, Game 3 loss in the NCAA Super Regionals to the Florida behind them -- a game that had Auburn won, would have sent it to Omaha, Nebraska, for the College World Series.
It's a new baseball season and time for Auburn to start a new run towards Omaha. Auburn opens its season at Plainsman Park on Friday night against Georgia Southern. Davis Daniel is set to start the first game, followed by Tanner Burns on Saturday and Kyle Gray on Sunday.
Daniel and Burns have both been watched closely over the offseason as the two are the favorites to take over the No. 1 star pitcher role for Auburn. The role was left empty after Casey Mize was drafted number one overall by the Detroit Tigers in the 2018 MLB Draft.
“I really believe in my heart, and I think I’ve said it once or twice this week, that its 1A and 1B,” said head coach Butch Thompson. “I am not ready to go, 'This is our first starter or second starter.'"
Daniel comes into 2019 after ending his 2018 campaign with a 3.70 ERA. Daniel started off last season as a starter, but after posting a 4.86 ERA in ten starts he was moved to the bullpen. That switch turned his season around, and his last appearance for the Tigers in 2018 was in the aforementioned game three where he pitched 5.1 scoreless innings of relief and struck out six while allowing only one hit. He was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 11th round of the 2018 MLB Draft, but he chose to come back to Auburn for his junior season.
Burns has racked up several awards this offseason. He was named a freshman All-American after last year, a preseason All-American by D1 Baseball this month, a third team All-American by Collegiate Baseball and earned a spot on the SEC All-Freshman Team after a stellar performance during his first year as a Tiger. He pitched the second most innings on the team with 86.2, posting a 3.01 ERA. He struck out 77, the most by an Auburn freshman since 2008.
He started Auburn’s postseason game against Northeastern, the first start for an Auburn freshman pitcher in a NCAA tournament since 1998. His final record for the season was 7-4.
Gray comes in as a transfer from Blinn Junior College. In his last season there he had a 2.73 ERA with a 7-1 record. He struck out 91 in 66 innings pitched and was the Blinn Junior College MVP. He earned both All-Region and All-Conference honors and was a Leroy Dryer Award winner.
“Kyle’s been sitting there for three weeks and we think he’s ready, and we think he’s the most prepared,” Thompson said of the decision to start Gray on Sunday.
“We think it’s a pretty good rotation that we’re throwing out for opening weekend,” Thompson said.
Auburn’s lineup behind Daniel on Friday will consist of Matt Scheffler as the catcher, Conor Davis at first base, Ryan Bliss at second, Edouard Julien manning third, Will Holland as the shortstop, Judd Ward out in left field, Kason Howell patrolling center field, Steven Williams in right field and Rankin Woley serving as the designated hitter.
Scheffler, Bliss, Howell and Woley will all be making their first appearances in a Tiger uniform. Bliss and Howell are freshman, while Scheffler and Woley are transfers from junior colleges.
Both Bliss and Howell were drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 30th and 20th rounds respectively during the 2018 MLB Draft. Bliss was rated the second best shortstop and 15th best overall player in Georgia. Perfect Game ranked him the 96th best player in the country. Howell was rated the 24th best outfielder in Texas.
Julien and Williams look to continue their heroics from last season. Julien led the team with 17 home runs while posting a .275 batting average. His 69 RBIs were the most by a freshman nationwide, and he earned a spot on the SEC All-Freshman Team and Freshman All-American honors from D1 Baseball and others. Williams was also voted to the SEC All-Freshman team and a Freshman All-American by D1 Baseball and others after leading the team with a .408 on-base percentage and tying for second in home runs with 12.
Holland led the team with 61 runs scored, tied for seventh most in the SEC, and tied for team lead with 78 hits. His .313 batting average was second highest on the team, and he goes into the 2019 season ranked as the No. 12 overall prospect for the 2019 MLB Draft by Perfect Game.
“I think this is a ballclub that can keep roaring and getting better as we get into the season,” Thompson said.
First pitch is set for 6 p.m. CST Friday night, followed by a 2 p.m. start time Saturday. The series concludes Sunday at 1 p.m.
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