With another eye-catching trip to the College World Series in 2022 in the rearview mirror, Auburn begins its 2023 Omaha campaign on Friday, Feb. 17 against Indiana.
The season begins in a three-game weekend series spanning from Friday to Sunday, with the temperature in Auburn set to be hovering around 60 degrees. The weather looks to be optimal for the opening clash of two Power Five schools.
The Tigers and Hoosiers are meeting for the first time since 1996. The last matchup that the two had came when they played in Montgomery, Ala. — Auburn was victorious in that game by a score of 11-4.
The boys from Bloomington are entering the season after finishing last year at a record of 27-32. They did not go down quietly, however, as they made a run to the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament, where they were ultimately bounced by Rutgers.
The Hoosiers are arriving in Auburn with a very experienced lineup this year, one that looks to test the Tigers in all facets of the game.
“They have seven of their nine position players back. They have real power,” said head coach Butch Thompson. “They have an 18 home run guy, a 19 home run guy, they got two or three guys that can absolutely steal a base if you’re not aware of how to stop the running game or slow it down a little bit.”
They returning players also include Hunter Jessee and Phillip Glasser, who were the top two hitters by batting average for the Hoosiers last season.
Auburn's weekend opponents also return a portion of a pitching staff that ranked No. 11 nationally in strikeouts per nine innings. To go along with this, they welcome a few new pitchers from the transfer portal who look to make a big impact, including their Opening Day starter.
Indiana is set to send out senior left-hander Ben Seiler on Friday, a transfer from Siena. Seiler is coming off of a year where he started in 13 games, totaling 86 strikeouts, and posting a 4.35 earned run average. Another left-handed senior in Ty Bothwell will make the start in game two for the Hoosiers on Saturday.
On the other side of the field, Thompson has all the confidence in the world that Auburn will be able to do well in the series this weekend. With a strong transfer class and some key veterans returning, he believes the team will be able to show some true energy.
Sophomore right-hander Chase Allsup will make the Opening Day start on Friday, followed by junior Joseph Gonzalez on Saturday and freshman Drew Nelson on Sunday. Allsup is making an appearance in the starting rotation this year after making many from the bullpen in 2022. Thompson believes this start will make a positive impact on his trajectory.
“We’ve been pushing from those 20-plus appearances last year, all out of the bullpen.” Thompson said. “We’ve been trying to make him a starter from day one. I’m hopeful it gives him a boost of confidence.”
As for the rest of the field, the Tigers return a strong amount of experience while also welcoming in a strong group of new players. In fact, a good amount of praise for the new guys is due to the admiration of their play from teammates, especially of right fielder Justin Kirby, a graduate transfer from Kent State.
“He’s a really good hitter, a lot of power.” said Auburn left fielder Bobby Peirce. “He’s got a good arm… he’ll be a really good addition to our lineup in the outfield.”
Kirby is coming off of a year where he posted a batting average of .323 and hit 15 home runs for the Golden Flashes.
Bryson Ware is also receiving a fair amount of attention from both the coaching staff and his teammates, as he is improving and impressing about as well as anyone in practices.
“He’s having his most competitive at-bats he’s ever had. He’s putting bunts down, he’s stealing bases.” said Thompson. “We feel like he’s in that right place, right now.”
The Auburn bats must certainly shine in this first series against a high-powered offense that Indiana is bringing to Plainsman Park. Striking early with the power and speed of Bobby Peirce in the leadoff position can be key to getting the Hoosier pitchers rattled early.
The same philosophy is true for Indiana and its offense. Both schools are similar as they try to put the pieces of the puzzle together in their pitching rotations, so getting after the deep bullpen of the other staff is a key factor in winning this opening series.
The Tigers will be going with an even mixture of “Auburn-experienced” guys and newcomers. Per Thompson, this is the projected starting lineup for Auburn for the weekend:
Catcher - Nate LaRue (24)
First Base - Cooper McMurray (26)
Second Base - Caden Green (1)
Third Base - Bryson Ware (8)
Shortstop - Cole Foster (7)
Left Field - Bobby Peirce (27)
Center Field - Kason Howell (5)
Right Field - Justin Kirby (14)
Designated Hitter - Ike Irish (18)
The opening series of the season begins Friday in Plainsman Park at 4 p.m. CT. Game two will be on Saturday at 2 p.m. CT, and the game three finale on Sunday at 1 p.m. CT. All three games in the series will be broadcast on SEC Network+.
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Tyler Raley is a junior from Birmingham, Alabama, majoring in journalism.