AUBURN, Ala. — It’s something of a platitude in college baseball: Once a team breaks down that door to Omaha for the first time, it’s usually easier to get back. When it comes to the College World Series, seeing is believing — and believing is powerful. So after breaking through to the CWS last year for the first time since 1997, Auburn’s returning veterans know what it takes to get there, and they know they are capable of doing it again.
“I think you’ve seen it with other teams, emerge or grow — it’s possible. I think our fans believe that, our coaching staff believes that, our players believe that,” Auburn coach Butch Thompson said. “I think our vision four years ago was kind of a dream, like when you lie down and go to sleep and you have a good dream, that was the vision. Now these eyes have been in that dugout, and really the players have seen it. They got off a plane there; that vision has crystalized. Now the vision is actually seeing, and I think that’s awesome. And nobody can take that from us. Any way you look at it, the vision’s real. It’s possible.”
The regular season was a grind for Auburn, which finished 14-16 in the SEC in the regular season, but Thompson is proud that nobody in his program ever turned on anybody else when things were tough. The players stuck together and stayed positive, and the winning culture that the coaching staff worked so hard to build proved to be a rock-solid foundation.
The Tigers bring back seven everyday regulars and nearly all of their key arms from last year’s Omaha club, so there’s serious reason to believe this club has the talent and experience to get back there, in addition to the belief. On top of all those returnees, Auburn brought in a dynamite recruiting class that significantly bolstered the pitching staff, which Thompson says is the deepest in his four years at Auburn — “by far, by far.” The Tigers showcased that depth in a nine-inning scrimmage against Auburn-Montgomery on Oct. 18, throwing nine different pitchers. And none of them were returning stalwarts Tanner Burns, Jack Owen or Brooks Fuller — three likely rotation pieces.
“We could have done that nine more innings with some exciting freshmen: You start talking about a Hayden Mullins, and we’ve got a boy named Trace Bright who’s been throwing the ball great,” Thompson said. “So we’re crazy excited about everybody that threw tonight. … I think we’ll have more of a problem on who to use and how to use them. Give me those problems every day of the week.”
Burns, Owen and Fuller have all started throwing and could get some action in Auburn’s fall world series. Burns (2.82 ERA, 101-23 K-BB in 79.2 IP) should be one of the nation’s premier aces, with electric stuff and good command; the key for him is maintaining his strength all season long, and Thompson suggested that something as simple as an added emphasis on hydration could help him do that. Burns and Owen (4-2, 2.75) have both looked great and felt great so far this fall, which is very encouraging. And Thompson thinks Fuller could take a jump as a sophomore after flashing plenty of promise last spring, though his walk rate was higher than hoped.
Of course, Fuller could also wind up as the midweek starter or even a swingman, because it’s going to be tough to deny fourth-year junior lefty Bailey Horn a spot in the weekend rotation. Physical and athletic with a nice three-pitch mix, Horn was overpowering in his perfect inning against Auburn-Montgomery, pitching at 92-93 with a good slider at 81-82. He owns a quality changeup as well.
“Bailey Horn was exciting in the first inning. He’s never looked better,” Thompson said. “He was coming off the surgery with [coach] Mitch Thompson at McClelland JC. I tried to push him in February, wasn’t ready in February, March, April, May, and then he showed up for a big outing against Georgia Tech [in the regional final] when we really needed him to and threw tremendous. But I think he’s even better. His stuff was electric tonight. Very athletic standing out there too.”
Sophomores Carson Skipper and Richard Fitts each got a taste of starting in SEC play last spring, and Thompson said both of them have made jumps this fall. Skipper, a 6-foot-3 lefty with an over-the-top Iron Mike-style delivery, worked downhill at 88-90 and showed excellent tumble and arm speed on his 80-83 changeup against Auburn-Montgomery. He struck out two in his perfect inning.
Fitts really stands out for his advanced fastball command.
“Fitts is another one. We might not have a better pitcher than Fitts, honestly,” Thompson said. “He threw six innings in the super regional game [at North Carolina]. Tanner throws two, and then here comes the walk-on freshman. I’m just not sure anybody’s better than him on our staff.”
Junior righty Cody Greenhill (3.45 ERA, 12 saves) is back to anchor the bullpen. Thompson said he looked rusty against Auburn-Montgomery, when he worked at 89-92 in his scoreless inning, but he’s a proven warrior who competes as hard as any pitcher in college baseball. The Tigers are still trying to figure out how best to deploy him to get the most out of him because he's tended to show premium velocity (think 95-97) in his first appearance of a weekend — then lesser stuff (maybe 89-90) in his second outing. Perhaps the answer is to use him once per weekend for multiple innings as a stopper/long reliever hybrid.
Auburn will certainly have enough arms in the bullpen that it shouldn’t need to rely on Greenhill to close out multiple games per week. Senior righty Ryan Watson has loads of experience and decent enough stuff. He got squared up some by Auburn-Montgomery, but he still flashed a nice downer breaking ball at 73-77 with good bite to go along with his 89-90 fastball.
Another intriguing returning arm is sophomore left-hander Garrett Wade, the highest-profile member of last year’s recruiting class. Wade made seven starts and eight relief appearances as a freshman but logged just 33.1 innings as spotty command held him back. He sprayed his 87-90 mph fastball around against Auburn-Montgomery but showed a promising slider and changeup. He’s something of an X-factor on this staff and a potential difference maker if he can refine his command and continue to “get comfortable,” as Thompson put it.
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Junior college transfer Drew Baker is in a similar category. His command remains a work in progress, but his upside is exciting. A three-quarters righty with a short, quick arm action, Baker sat 91-94 and touched 95 against Auburn-Montgomery, along with a serviceable big-breaking three-quarters slurve at 77-79. He has a chance to become a key late-innings reliever if he can fine-tune his command and tighten up that breaker a bit.
Plenty of other newcomers make this staff even deeper. The aforementioned Mullins is one of the biggest names in the class, a 6-foot lefty who has been up to 94 mph with feel for a breaking ball and good pitchability. Bright, a 6-4 righty, has looked even better than the Tigers expected this fall, working at 90-92 with a promising breaking ball and the ability to land his changeup for strikes. Two more newcomers, who did not pitch against AU Montgomery, include junior college transfer Jackson Reynolds (who has been good from the jump this fall) and freshman righty Mason Barnett (who is out with a stress fracture in his back but was up to 95 mph last year).
Among the other newcomers who did pitch against Auburn-Montgomery, expect low three-quarters righty Blake Burkhalter to serve as a big bullpen weapon. He sat 89-91 with funk and life, has been up to 92 this fall and has good two-plane action on his 78-81 slider.
Lefty Peyton Glavine, the son of Hall of Famer Tom Glavine, is a 5-foot-11 bulldog with goggles who is fun to watch. He has a longer three-quarters arm action with some front-side funk that makes his 87-89 fastball play up, and the pitch has good arm-side run when it’s down in the zone. He also showed feel for a nice fading changeup at 82. The wild card is freshman two-way talent Nate LaRue, who owns a clean high three-quarters arm action and worked 89-91 with the best breaking ball I saw all night. It's a late, sharp 78-79 power pitch with 11-to-5 break. The issue is that LaRue is also Auburn’s No. 2 catcher, and it’s not easy to catch and pitch as a freshman.
“I don’t know if I’ll need him pitching-wise. You can’t really do the pitcher-catcher thing, but once all these arms roll out… I don’t know what to do,” Thompson said. “That breaking ball is good. And I’m a career pitching guy, so it’s hard for me to throw that away. I want him to work with me.”
But the Tigers are also awfully excited about LaRue behind the plate and in the batter’s box because he has serious righthanded bat speed and power potential in his 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame. He could get at-bats at DH and spell senior Matt Scheffler behind the plate as a freshman.
Scheffler is a mature defender who blocks and receives well, and he showed off a strong, accurate arm and quick release against Auburn-Montgomery, shutting down the running game. He’s also noticeably more physical than he was last year, a product of spending the summer working out in the weight room with outfielders Steven Williams and Kason Howell — all of whom look considerably stronger. Thompson said Williams’ strength gains have started to translate at the plate, where he’s shown a better ability to drive the ball middle-away, in addition to his obvious pull-side power to right field. He hit a deep sacrifice fly to dead center against Auburn-Montgomery, staying back on a curveball and giving it a ride.
Howell has the look of a breakout candidate after hitting .262/.340/.307 as a freshman. His speed and center field defense are his calling cards, but he hit just 10 doubles and no homers last year. He might be able to find those gaps with harder line drives more frequently as a sophomore.
“It’s more punch. He hit a home run last week, he didn’t hit a home run at all last year, but he’s starting to show a little bit more,” Thompson said. “We think he’s a warrior. I love him. And I think some more power’s gonna be there — he competed for singles last year, and it might be doubles.”
Rounding out what should be among the SEC’s best outfields is junior left fielder Judd Ward. He's a compact left-handed hitter with solid-average or slightly better speed and a nice line-drive, gap-to-gap approach. As long as Auburn has defenders in center and right, it also could occasionally use senior Conor Davis in left. But Davis (.290/.351/.448, 14 2B, 8 HR) figures to see the bulk of his at-bats at DH. He’s a proven run producer who brings mature at-bats and valuable right-handed power potential to the heart of the lineup.
Another veteran, senior Rankin Woley, started at third base against Auburn-Montgomery but figures to spend most of the year at first base, where Auburn likes his defense. Hitting coach Gabe Gross identified Woley as one of Auburn’s most improved hitters this fall, so look for a jump from last year’s .277/.336/.387 line.
The main question for this lineup is how the third base, shortstop and second base jobs will settle. High-energy sophomore firestarter Ryan Bliss (.281/.367/.369, 11 SB) played a very good second base last year and is getting a chance to win the shortstop job this fall. His arm is a little light for the position, but he can make up for it by aggressively charging the ball and getting rid of it quickly and accurately, which he did against Auburn-Montgomery. If Bliss plays short, expect junior college transfer Garrett Farquhar to handle second base, where he’s a reliable defender. Farquhar turned in Auburn’s most competitive at-bats against Auburn-Montgomery, singling twice (once to the right side, once via a line drive to left) and getting hit by a pitch.
“He’s been playing really hard," Thompson said. "We all respect how he hasn’t given a rep away and has played hard."
Farquhar could also slide to third base if Bliss winds up at second with sophomore Brody Moore at short. Moore doesn’t have as much range but makes up for it with a stronger arm than Bliss — and his hands work well at short or third base, which is his other possible destination. Either way, he figures to be in the starting lineup.
Newcomers Ryan Dyal, Mason Greer and Johnny Ceccoli provide additional depth on this veteran team. Dyal is rehabbing an elbow injury that did not require surgery, but Thompson said he has the team’s flattest left-handed stroke and a good approach at the plate. He also has a strong arm behind the plate, adding to Auburn’s excellent catching depth.
Greer, the son of former big leaguer Rusty Greer, is a thick-bodied corner infielder who came in as a switch-hitter. He, though, is concentrating mostly on his more natural left-handed stroke now. Thompson likes his ability to go the other way and pepper the high left field wall at Plainsman Park, and he figures to hit plenty of home runs in his Auburn career.
Ceccoli is another physical left-handed hitter at 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, and he stood out for his feel to hit against Auburn-Montgomery. He graduated early to enroll at Auburn ahead of schedule, and his ceiling is very intriguing. He’s another piece in the first base/corner outfield mix.
Thompson walked away from the Auburn-Montgomery scrimmage disappointed in the quality of his team’s at-bats overall, a continuation of a lackluster fall offensively. But given all the scrappy veterans on the team, you have to think this lineup should be difficult to navigate once the lights come on in the spring and the vets find their strides.
“It’s like every other program. We sure don’t need to be peaking in October, and we’re not,” Thompson said. “This time last October, you don’t know where you’re going. You can’t qualify for Omaha this month. We’ve just gotta keep building our culture and our team, and that’s all we’re trying to do. We’ve got some work to do, but I do like our pieces. As you can tell I’m excited about the depth of our pitching pieces, that’s better than it’s ever been.”