It’s been a harrowing journey at times for Auburn baseball in recent years, but light is finally pouring in from the end of the tunnel. The 2019 season is perhaps one of the most anticipated in years, and the stage is set for the program to take the next step.
Ever since Butch Thompson took over in the fall of 2015, consistent progress has been made in each subsequent season. Though Thompson’s first season was rocky as expected, the next saw the Tigers nearly make it to a Super Regional. Last season, the Tigers not only made it, but went to-to-toe with the Florida Gators and just barely came up short. Auburn fans are hoping 2019 delivers even further improvement and some of the magic of seasons past.
“Sometimes it takes two or three years to get a regional-type team built, so in some ways I feel like we’re ahead of the game,” Thompson told AL.com last season.
Names like Bo Jackson, Tim Hudson, and Frank Thomas are just a few who have graced the program, each of whom went on to have successful Major League Baseball careers and were MLB All-Stars. Jackson, arguably the most prolific athlete in Auburn history, played from 1983-86 and had his greatest season in ‘85. That year, Jackson hit .401 with 17 home runs and ended the season with a school-record .864 slugging percentage.
Like Jackson, football brought Thomas to The Plains, but a love for baseball led him to the diamond. Thomas, Auburn’s first consensus All-America pick, played from 1987-89. In ‘89, he hit an SEC-best .403 with 83 runs and 19 home runs. The first baseman helped the Tigers win the SEC Tournament and advance deep in the Atlantic Regional.
Hudson, the 1997 Rotary Smith Award Winner, found historic success in his two years with the Tigers from 1996-97. In ‘97, Hudson played in all 65 games as a pitcher and outfielder. Hudson went 15-2 with a 2.97 ERA, hit .396 with 18 home runs, and helped his team tie a school-record with 50 wins and reach the College World Series (CWS) for the fourth—and most recent—time in school history.
As for 2019, the Tigers have to replace big talent once again. Casey Mize, the No. 1 overall pick by the Detroit Tigers in the 2018 MLB Draft, left behind enormous shoes to fill on the mound. But Auburn has plenty of young talent in right-hander Tanner Burns, who was named Freshman All-American in 2018; Davis Daniel, an experienced pitcher who turned down an offer by the Milwaukee Brewers to return for his junior season; and newcomer Garrett Wade, a 6-foot-2 left-hander from Hartselle High School and the 2017-2018 Alabama Baseball Gatorade Player of the Year.
Burns went 7-4 on the mound in 2018, pitching the second-most innings on the team, 86 2/3, with a 3.01 ERA, and 77 strikeouts—the most by a freshman since 2008. Burns was also the first Auburn freshman to start an NCAA tournament opener since 1998. Daniel went 3-4 with a 4.86 ERA and 70 strikeouts in 66 2/3 innings. Wade finished his senior season in high school 7-2 with a .90 ERA and 103 strikeouts in 54 2/3 innings.
“I’m proud of the accomplishments we have made on and off the field,” said Thompson, “yet there is still much work to be done.”
Of course, the next big step would be a return to the CWS. It feels like a lifetime since Hudson led Auburn to its last CWS appearance in 1997. That season, the Tigers finished 50-17 and thrived in a conference that dominated the sport, with half the CWS participants coming from the Southeastern Conference (SEC) alone. LSU eventually defeated SEC foe Alabama for the national championship that year.
Auburn made its own mark as well in the Eastern Regional prior to the CWS by winning one of the most memorable games in the program’s history. After defeating Western Carolina and South Florida, Auburn faced Florida State. Things looked bleak as Auburn stared down the barrel of a six-run deficit late in the game, but a rollercoaster of emotions was on the horizon. With the bases loaded, backup catcher David Ross, who later won the World Series with the Boston Red Sox in 2013 and the Chicago Cubs in 2016 and finished as first runner-up in Dancing with the Stars in 2017, swung at strike three to seemingly end the game and the season. But that was not the case.
To the dismay of Seminole fans, Ross actually foul tipped the ball off the catcher’s mitt. A couple of pitches later, Ross knocked one out of the park. Auburn won 8-7, and later defeated FSU once more to advance to the CWS.
That game was arguably the most exhilarating in Auburn’s history, and fans have been starved for more like it ever since. If Thompson continues his current pattern of improvement, 2019 might be the year they are finally treated to more monumental wins and making the 2019 CWS could be a real possibility. H&A
Cover photo: Bailey Horn – Photo courtesy Auburn Athletics