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Baseball: State of the Program

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Man, what a difference a year makes. As we sat here last July, Auburn had just come off one of the most heart breaking losses a team can suffer at the hands of the Florida Gators who went on to Omaha. They also had key holes to fill, with Centerfield and 2nd base being filled by true freshmen and Junior College transfers filling out the roster at 1st and catcher, not to mention breaking in a guy who had never played a pitch at 3rd base. It wasn’t pretty at times, but when it mattered, it was. In the month of July, Auburn went 5-3, including wins over Georgia Tech (twice) and North Carolina (twice) both on their home fields and held a lead over Mississippi State in Omaha with 2 outs in the 9th. Oh yeah, Auburn went to the College World Series if you didn’t hear. They did all that without their #1 starter to begin the year and never really had the dangerous #2 or #3 arms consistently for the other part of the season and into the postseason for the most part. Davis Daniel didn’t see the field after the 3rd inning of the first game of the season, Jack Owen went down with a strained forearm for the middle of the season during conference play and Tanner Burns couldn’t get his shoulder right after the Vanderbilt series in late April. It’s pretty amazing when you look at it. Not to mention the offense had a collective slump that was tough to over come. Auburn started the season at 20-2 and 4-0 in the SEC after the first game of the Mississippi State series. They would finish 12-21 and leave some doubt as to if they would even make the dance at all. A win over Tennessee pretty much erased all doubts and Auburn was awarded a 2 seed in a stacked Atlanta regional. After an opening offensive slugfest against Coastal Carolina, Auburn would be matched up against Georgia Tech in the winners bracket, and Steven Williams would exercise some demons.

Auburn would go on to dominate Tech again on Sunday night and dog pile at Russ Chandler. Unlike last year, however, this year would have another dogpile to go. Auburn would head to Chapel Hill to take on North Carolina in the Supers and would win Game 1 in comeback fashion in a trilling 11-7 ballgame while Game 2 saw the Tar Heels out match the Tigers on the mound, picking up a 2-0 win setting up a winner take all game for Omaha.

Auburn would win their first Super Regional in program history and make the programs 5th trip to Omaha with that performance and though the season would end with heartbreaking losses against Mississippi State and Louisville, there is no way it could dampen what this team did or where it took us.

Though that is the end of the chapter for the 2019 Auburn Tigers, the story is far from complete. The 2020 Auburn Tigers look locked, ready and loaded for another step in Butch Thompson’s master plan. The Tigers return all but three major contributors to the 2019 effort. Will Holland (Twins), Edouard Julien (Twins), Elliott Anderson (Royals) and Davis Daniel (Angels) signed with their teams and have already started their pro careers to some extent. Meanwhile, Jack Owen decided to come back to the Plains for his junior year, meaning that Auburn will have to only replace their third baseman and shortstop in the field and find a new ‘first guy out of the pen’ that Anderson held for most of the season last year. While that is a touch of tough news, there are plenty of highly talented prospects to fill both those holes and any other moves.

First we will take a look at the field. The outfield will look the same. Judd Ward showed that he was a monster in left, throwing out runners at the plate and at first base, dealing major damage to opponents. One of the bigger surprises from last season had to be Kason Howell and how well he played defensively in Center and showed flashes at the plate as well. Steven Williams has shown that he is a solid right fielder and will almost undoubtedly be in that spot to start next season. Behind the plate, Auburn will return Matt Scheffler who caught a majority of the games this season and will also add Nate LaRue, who Coach Thompson has said, ‘might be the best athlete in the entire class’, will also be able to fill in at catcher as well as some pitching and could also play in the outfield if needed. The infield is where some new faces will begin to show up. Ryan Bliss, who was excellent at 2nd base this season, will more than likely move to SS to replace Will Holland and that is about the only for sure move on the field. Rankin Woley could stay at first base or could slid over to his natural position at 3rd with the departing Julien now playing professional ball. If that does happen, Conor Davis would be a likely candidate to fill the 1st base hole which would only leave 2nd base and boy are there some interesting names to fill that slot. Auburn added two Junior College transfers in the spring in Tyler Miller and Garrett Farquhar. Miller is out of Spanish Fort and was drafted by the Pirates in the 23rd round and hit .336 last year for Mississippi Community College and would fit very nicely at 2nd base. Farquhar is out of Hoover and comes to the Plains after a stent at Shelton State where he hit .363 and has speed to burn which would make him an ideal leadoff hitter if he does get the nod. Those are just two of the newcomers but there are also guys that are already on the team that will definitely get a look as well.

As for the mound, Auburn stands to be loaded as long as they can stay healthy, as we saw this season. Friday nights are for Tanner Burns, who will take the lead for his final season as a Tiger. Yes, he is a junior, but the Big Leagues will make sure they snatch him up before the 2021 season starts. Jack Owen will hold on to the Saturday games, giving Auburn one of the best 1-2 punches in the country for a series. Following that will be a dog fight for the Sunday start. Bailey Horn looked good late in the season, Brooks Fuller showed flashes of what he is capable of, Richard Fitts showed the magic he can produce all this season, Carson Skipper showed promise in spots and with an offseason to develop, could make the jump, Garrett Wade comes highly regarded and with an offseason with Coach Steve Smith, could get that control he lacked this season. Or could it be a true freshman, like Hayden Mullins out of Hendersonville, TN. The good news is, Auburn has a lot of options for its starters, a luxury Auburn has not had in the past. As far as replacing the first guy out of the pen role, look for Ryan Watson to be the anchor early in the season. Bolstering the pen will be the guys mentioned above who don’t nail down the Sunday or mid-week starting jobs. And at the end…you know who.

The Bull will be the finisher for the Tigers once again, in what will more than likely be his final go around in the orange and blue. One thing to look for on this end would be the pitching staff looking for a replacement to Greenhill going forward. JC Transfer Drew Baker will definitely get a look, with his 97 MPH fastball and 52 Ks in 50 innings in his freshman year at Chipola College.

Add all this up and this is a ball club that has fewer questions than it did last season that ended up making it to Omaha. Obviously, that doesn’t mean that Auburn will make it back to the high, holy land that’s in Nebraska, but it has all the tools and then some to make it there. I’ve just lightly scratched the surface of the Auburn baseball program and there is much more talent behind it. I say that meaning that the Auburn program hasn’t been this strong in decades…if ever. Auburn baseball is back.