Back in January, Auburn was ranked No. 23 in the Collegiate Baseball preseason poll. From there on, Auburn’s season has been an up-and-down journey that has culminated in a trip to Omaha for the College World Series.
“All that we’ve been through, both the good and bad, we’ve claimed every bit of it,” said Auburn head coach Butch Thompson. “ Excited to go out and compete. I think it’s gonna be amazing”
Auburn has faced several obstacles throughout the year from nearly season-long batting slumps to inconsistent relief pitching. Yet Auburn has pushed through and found a way to win despite every obstacle.
“We took a different road to get here,” Thompson said during a press conference in Omaha that was posted on the NCAA’s Twitter page. “This is our third full year with the majority of our staff, and to be able to be here has been a tough one, a tough journey, but a rewarding one for sure. The difference in these three men (fellow coaches Tim Corbin. Dan McDonnell and Chris Lemonis) that I respect so, so much is we've won five games on the road in this postseason. We've had moments of adversity both on and off the field, but the journey has been sweeter. We've been trying to knock this door down for three years, and finally felt like the hinges were loose enough and the door knob was about to break off and took one final swing at it to make it happen.”
One of the biggest challenges throughout the season has been keeping the weekend starters healthy. When Davis Daniel was injured in his first appearance of the season on Opening Day, the Tigers knew they were going to have to figure a new plan for their weekend rotation.
Going into Opening Day on Feb. 15, Tanner Burns and Daniel were expected to be the Tigers’ answer to replace Casey Mize, who was selected No. 1 overall in the 2018 MLB Draft. Daniel was pulled after only two innings during his opening day start and never returned for the season. Until April, the hope was he would return sometime around the beginning of May, but on April 22 it was announced he would have Tommy John surgery, ending his season completely.
With Burns now left to lead the pitching staff, he was Auburn’s shining star until the end of April. Highlights of his season include a complete game against Cincinnati, where he struck out 15 to tie the Auburn strikeout record, on March 2 and an ERA that stayed below 2.0 until mid-April. In his first ten games he was 7-3 with a 2.32 ERA, in that time frame he struck out 83 batters and allowed 18 runs.
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While Burns was taking over as Auburn’s star pitcher, another sophomore pitcher was starting to make a name for himself. Jack Owen started the season as a relief pitcher but earned his first start against UCF. In his first three starts of the season plus one relief appearance his ERA stayed at 0.00, and he threw a complete game while striking out 25 batters over those three starts. He did not allow a run until his start against Tennessee. Things came to a halt for Owen when he started struggling with tendinitis in his shoulder. He left the game after four innings against Tennessee and did not take the mound again until he came out in a relief appearance against Ole Miss over a month later.
Auburn did not get to celebrate having two consistent weekend starters again for long. Owen returned on April 20, and Burns was injured on April 25 against Vanderbilt. Burns is still not at 100 percent as he was unavailable for the SEC Tournament and pitched a combined five innings over his two starts in the NCAA Tournament.
As Auburn scrambled for starting pitchers, the bullpen was seeing a lot of game-time, but did not always deliver solid pitching. Bailey Horn has a 6.03 ERA, at one point it was up to 14.54, Ryan Watson has a 5.08 ERA, Elliot Anderson is at 4.22 and Richard Fitts has a 5.49 ERA. The only Auburn relief pitcher with an ERA below 4.00 is closer Cody Greenhill, whose stands at 3.49.
While pitching struggled, Auburn’s offense saw season-long slumps from key bats. Will Holland, who ended the 2018 season hitting .313, saw his batting average plummet this year. Besides his opening day average of .333, Holland’s batting average has only been above .250 twice this season, both times standing at .253, the lowest it got after opening weekend was .143. His average going into the College World Series is .249.
Edouard Julien also struggled at the plate, going through up and down phases all year. His highest batting average, besides opening day, was .450, but at one point it fell down to .232. He did have over 50 RBIs for the second season in a row. Steven Williams, who hit .291 last season, is batting .241 now.
Yet all three have seen a surge in the NCAA Tournament, Williams has nine hits in the tournament including three home runs, one of which was a walk-off homer. He has 13 RBIs in tournament play. Julien has eight hits and six RBIs, and Holland has seven hits and four RBIs. Also stepping up at the plate throughout the tournament has been Rankin Woley, who has recorded 10 hits and nine RBIs.
“I think this is one of those unique years, where there’s a lot of unique things, special things happening,” Thompson said. “I think we’ve overcome some of those injuries and setbacks this year, and made it with the challenges the program has.”
Auburn had a 15-game win streak at one point in the season. It ended in Game 2 of a series against Mississippi State, the team Auburn will play on Sunday in Omaha. After that Auburn went 12-21 to close out the regular season. With a 14-16 conference record and a 38-26 overall record plus only one win in the SEC Tournament, Auburn getting into a regional was uncertain. Now after beating Georgia Tech in the Atlanta Regional and North Carolina in the Super Regionals, Auburn is facing some familiar faces in the College World Series.
“For whatever reason, those six days between the SEC Tournament and the Regionals starting in Atlanta, some good things started happening,” Thompson said. “I could tell the team was getting closer. I think they kind of put away with like hey we’re injured here, and I just think they wiped the slate and kind of created a new clean sheet of paper…. We’ve been a handful the last couple of weeks, and I think that’s our driving force in this next round.”
Of the eight teams in Omaha, four are SEC teams- Auburn, Mississippi State, Arkansas and Vanderbilt. Auburn’s record against those three teams this season is 2-7.
The first SEC opponent Auburn will play is Mississippi State, who won the series in Starkville 2-1. Auburn won 6-5 in game one, lost 2-15 in game 2 and lost 15-20 in game three of that series. To get to Omaha, the Bulldogs beat Miami in the Starkville Regional and Stanford in the Starkville Super Regional. They have a 51-13 overall record and a 20-10 SEC record. Mississippi State was in the College World Series in 2018, while Auburn has not been since 1997.
The two teams will face off on Sunday at 6:30 p.m. CST. Owen will get the start for Auburn opposite Ethan Small for Mississippi State. Small has a 1.76 ERA, was named the SEC Pitcher of the Year and was selected 28th overall by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 2019 MLB Draft.
“I think we had to circle and go to a little damage control for a an extended period of time in the middle of the year,” Thompson said. “But I think that’s where I go back and credit this group time and time again. There was enough fortitude, there was enough confidence in themselves, maybe even when people gave up on them. I think these guys still think they’re good baseball players, and believed that the whole time.”
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