Auburn baseball came into the season with low expectations, but the team hopes to continue to prove they belong when they go to Corvallis, Oregon for a three-game set in the Super Regionals this weekend.
Picked to finish last in the SEC West in the SEC coach's preseason poll, all Auburn has done is overachieve. It ended the season at 40-19 and was selected to host a Regional for the for time since 2010 as the No.14 seed in the country.
"I think they have a plan and an understanding of where people forecasted them, and I think they've used it for fuel," said head coach Butch Thompson. "These guys have had a chip on their shoulder from day one."
Hot as can be
The Tigers put that fuel on full display last weekend, outscoring their opponents 51-18 in three games against SE Louisiana, Florida State and UCLA to sweep their way through the Auburn Regional. They set their season high in hits (21) against SE Louisiana before setting their season record in runs the next day with a 21-run game against FSU.
After getting shut out by Kentucky to end the SEC Tournament, the Auburn offense completely changed the narrative in the Regional, batting .395 as a team and slugging 11 home runs and 49 RBI. The team also showed great poise at the plate, earning 29 walks as opposed to only 24 strikeouts.
SEC Co-Player of the Year Co-Player of the Year, Sonny DiChiara, led the team in hits with nine, and Regional MVP Brody Moore followed with eight.
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The Tigers benefitted from having second baseman Cole Foster back in the lineup in the Regionals. The switch hitter was inserted into two hole in the lineup and had six hits, including a four-hit game with three homers (two in one inning) in game one versus SE Louisiana.
The starting pitching was another strong point for the Auburn club last weekend, as all three starters picked up wins, going a combined 16.1 innings and giving up seven runs while striking out 23.
While the starters turned in strong outings and the offense went off, the bullpen wasn't put in any taxing situations. In fact, Auburn didn't turn to key bullpen pieces Carson Skipper or Blake Burkhalter until game three, when they were asked to keep a nine-run advantage. Chase Allsup was not called into action all weekend, and no reliever made more than one appearance on the weekend.
"We can't play better than we did last weekend. That's the biggest challenge for us is trying to maintain and stay there," Thompson said. "I think it's all mind. I don't think it's as much physical as anything else."
These two teams come from leagues that are not very familiar with each other. Before the Regionals, Auburn had not faced a Pac-12 opponent, while Oregon State had not faced an SEC opponent until last weekend. Auburn defeated UCLA of the Pac-12 11-4 in the Regional final, and the Beavers split two games in the final with the SEC's Vanderbilt, who Auburn took two out of three from.
Wile Auburn made light work of the Bruins, the Beavers struggled when going head-to-head with them this season, losing the last series of the season against them and splitting a pair of games with them in the Pac-12 Tournament.
Auburn will get the chance to prove it can play with the best of competition on the highest level this weekend. With a trip to Omaha and a chance to play in the College World Series on the line, Auburn will square up with No. 3 Oregon State starting on Saturday at 9 p.m. CST in Corvallis, Oregon.
While Auburn has shown promise this year on the road at 10-8 in away games, this will be its first trip to the West Coast this season. The games on Monday and Tuesday will start at 9 p.m. CST, Auburn's latest start time this season. Temperatures will also be much lower than Auburn is used to. After a weekend full of Alabama heat and 80+ degrees weather, Oregon expects temperatures to set around 50 degrees Fahrenheit each night.
"We're trying to stay up an hour later each night, which is a problem for me, it's not so much a challenge for these guys, probably," Thompson said.
Despite the odd circumstances for Auburn, Thompson remains confident in his team and their recent play. With the veteran presence of guys like Skipper and Moore, who played in the College World Series in 2018, he feels that the team has the maturity they need to put the distractions to the side.
The team will arrive to Corvallis a day early and practice on the field on Friday, which also instills confidence in the team that they can make those adjustments.
"This thing will come down to execution, whether we're playing here at Plainsman Park or a 41-hour drive away," Thompson said.
Scouting the Beavers
Oregon State, much like Auburn, didn't have the ending to its regular season that it would've hoped for. It dropped its last two series of the season to Arizona and UCLA. It then won two games in the Pac 12 Tournament before losing a 25-22 game to UCLA and then getting eliminated by No. 2 Stanford.
However, the Beavers have earned the right to host a Super Regional after beating New Mexico State, San Diego and winning a rematch with Vanderbilt 7-6 after losing the first.
Stealing 82 bases as a team, the Beavers have a talented offense that thrives on stringing together hits and using their speed and aggressiveness to take extra bases. They are the jack of their trade: playing small ball. They have five .300+ hitters, but the team has only hit 55 home runs (Auburn hit 70). Oregon State hitters also display great plate discipline with 376 walks as a club.
Leadoff hitter Justin Boyd leads the team in batting average (.366), OBP (.488), and steals (24-for-30) and is second on the team with 52 walks. It is key for Auburn to keep Boyd off the basepaths and attack the Oregon State hitters.
The majority of its power comes from center fielder Jacob Melton. He has 16 homers while knocking in 81 runs and leading the team with a .668 slugging percentage. He hit one of the Beavers' three dingers in game two against Vanderbilt.
On the mound, Oregon State has compiled a 4.19 ERA as a team compared to Auburn's 4.46. It has a 606-179 strikeout-to-walk ratio and has only given up 35 home runs.
The pitching staff is led by southpaw sophomore Hjerbe Cooper, who is one of three finalists for the Golden Spikes award that is given to College Baseball's top player. The California native posted a 2.40 ERA while amassing a 10-2 record in 16 starts. He racked up 155 Ks as opposed to 26 walks.
Although all 16 of his prior appearances were starts, he came up clutch in game two against Vandy, pitching two scoreless innings and striking out five in a one-run contest in his first save of the year.
Oregon State will go to its ace, Cooper, for game one, while the Tigers will give the ball to RHP Trace Bright (4-4, 4.80). Bright earned the win in game one versus SE Louisiana, going five innings and surrendering four runs despite striking out 10.
"(Getting the game one start) is a huge honor," Bright said. "We want to go out and set the tone early like we did this past weekend. Try and get away in that first game and then go from there."
Game two will feature Auburn's Joseph Gonzalez (7-2, 2.90) versus the Beavers' RHP Jake Phennigs (4-0, 2.94). Gonzalez earned the win in game two of the Regional versus Florida State with six innings of three-run ball.
If the series comes down to game three, Auburn will go to Mason Barnett (3-2, 4.13), who might have pitched the best game of his career versus UCLA on Sunday before the weather ended play for the night, ending his line at 5.1 shutout innings. He gave up a leadoff double but did not allow another hit from that point while striking out 10, matching his career high. Oregon State will go with freshman RHP Jacob Kmatz (8-2, 4.19).
The best of three series between No. 14 Auburn (40-19) and No. 3 Oregon State (47-16) will be played at 9 p.m. CST on Friday and Saturday on ESPN2. If necessary, game three's start time is undecided.
After making the Super Regionals in both 2018 and 2019, Auburn takes a 3-5 record in the Super Regionals, including 3-3 under Butch Thompson into the series.
"It was always in our minds that we wanted to go on this run and that we were going to do it," said center fielder Kason Howell. "We wanted to prove to everybody that we were going to be the team to make the run and win the National Championship. We're right where we wanted to be and right where we thought we would be, so we're just going to do what we know how to do best and play a good, high level of baseball."
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