As #20 Auburn (33-16, 13-11) gets ready for their final regular-season series inside Plainsman Park, they’re excited for the stretch run to the postseason.
“These guys have exams out of the way, they’re (essentially) minor league baseball players now, and so I think that affects preparation.” Said head baseball coach Butch Thompson on Thursday. “I think it gives us an opportunity to put energy into those hours lifted by (not having) class, being out even more preparation for your opponent.”
The team, coming off two straight series losses to national #1 Tennessee and SEC West-leading Arkansas, is taking advantage of the extra time to focus on the push to the playoffs, said Thompson. “We tried to reset on Monday, as a group, just talked about everything that we’ve been through. Now, more than ever, it doesn’t matter if you’re trying to hit a certain average or get a certain amount of hits, and it doesn’t matter if you hadn’t hit enough or if you have the worst ERA on the pitching staff. Everything’s kind of a clean slate, if you will.”
Thompson’s acknowledging the challenge of locking in and pushing for postseason seeding, as well as finding inspiration from an unlikely source. “I talked about the Kentucky Derby winner weaving in and out, just like all these weeks of the league, and then he finds the rail. You can position yourself well, but if he doesn’t kick it in there, then you never hear his name. He not only positioned himself well, he absolutely kicked it into the stretch to pull it out. And that’s where we’re at.”
The analogy to 80-1 longshot Rich Strike is a fitting one, as Auburn was projected before the season to finish last in the West, yet they’ve found the rail. Currently 4th in the West, Auburn is a single game behind LSU and Texas A&M for 2nd place behind Arkansas, but holds the tiebreakers against both teams thanks to series wins against both units.
As it currently stands, Auburn is projected to be the #5 seed in the SEC Tournament, meaning they're subject to the Opening Day's single-elimination round. They're also currently projected, depending on sources, to be either the #8 or #9 national seed for the Field of 64, the difference between potentially hosting a Super Regional and traveling to another site.
Before the postseason, however, Auburn must face a dangerous Alabama team (27-22, 10-14) coming into Plainsman Park in a matchup that frequently is closer than any standings might predict.
“I think it’s a similar team to ours. There’s definitely threats, and power” explained Thompson. “The last eight games, a couple of guys have really picked it up” for Alabama. Having not won an SEC series since a sweep of Ole Miss in early April, Alabama's going to be fired up for the rivalry matchup, something senior shortstop Brody Moore is all too familiar with. "You grow up always wanting to compete against Alabama, so to have that as our last weekend here, hopefully we can pack out Plainsman Park and get after it. Just go out and competing every single pitch. We have to win this pitch. We have to win this at-bat. We have to do whatever it takes at this point in time to help this team win."
Key to Auburn’s comfort going into this matchup is the availability of closer Blake Burkhalter. After injuring his hamstring in game one against Tennessee, the SEC leader in saves made his return to the mound in the 8th innings against Troy on Tuesday night.
Inserted with two outs in the 8th, he was asked to get the final out just to get some work in and test the hamstring. He induced a ground ball to 1B Sonny DiChiara to end the inning, but wasn’t satisfied with his location. “I wanted to make sure I was still sharp so I went out there for the eighth. The first batter, I think I may have been kind of timid a little bit, taking it easy and I just didn’t have any command. I was wild to the first guy and wound up hitting him. I got a ground ball to Sonny (DiChiara) and I came to the dugout and said ‘Huddy (Tim Hudson) I need at least another out to make sure I’m sharp for the weekend.” He went back out and pitched a scoreless ninth, hitting his usual velo and locating the cutter well. “It felt great,” Burkhalter said. “I needed that and the coaches knew I needed that.” Thompson confirmed that the staff put him into the game to see if he could execute and get faith in the health of the hamstring. “I dropped him in the game in the eighth inning with two outs to not make him work too much,” Thompson said. “That was the design, but it looked like he was still steering and trying to find it those first couple of pitches. We actually threw him against Troy, one to feel like he’s ready to pitch, but then it starts being about that sharpness. He wanted to go back out and thought he needed to in the ninth. He got better and better and the last pitch was the best pitch.”
The sliver lining, if there is one to a minor injury to a key player, is the experience forced Auburn to turn to some other pitchers and test them in higher-leverage situations. “I think we found some pieces,” Thompson explained on Thursday. “By having him not available, another guy stepped up like Carson Swilling. We feel like Chase Isbell is starting to come. John Armstrong, it’s one of the best outings we’ve had in weeks and he’s been working for seven weeks to get his head in the mitt and get connected with his delivery. All of that was really good work. Chase Allsup is continuing as a true freshman to be competitive. Those four guys that I point to that are ready.”
Starting pitcher Hayden Mullins was expected to throw a bullpen on Thursday, the first time he’s thrown since the injury during Tennessee’s game one. He is expected to undergo surgery once the season is over, but he could potentially give Auburn an inning or two out of the bullpen later this season if he is pain-free during and after the bullpen session. He will not return to the starting rotation, and there’s a possibility he still may be shut down for the year.
Auburn coaches took the day after Tuesday’s game at Troy to check in on some recruits. Thompson remained in Troy to watch LHP Drew Nelson lead Pike Liberal Arts School to the AISA state title; Nelson earned the win with fifteen strikeouts.
Assistant Gabe Gross went to Detroit, Michigan to see catcher Ike Irsh, projected to be a potential Top 150 MLB draft pick, while assistant Karl Nonemaker was in New Jersey to see pitcher Zach Crotchfelt. Both Irish and Crotchfelt are potential early MLB draftees, while Nelson is expected to forgo MLB and report to Auburn in the fall.
Friday – Jr. RHP Mason Barnett (2-1, 4.22) vs. Jr. RHP Garrett McMillan (4-3, 3.41)
Saturday – Jr. RHP Trace Bright (2-4, 4.26) vs. Sr. RHP Jacob McNairy (5-2, 4.61)
Sunday – So. RHP Joseph Gonzalez (6-2, 2.98) vs. So. LHP Grayson Hitt (4-3, 5.02)
3B Blake Rambusch
CF Kason Howell
1B Sonny DiChiara
RF Bobby Pierce
DH Brooks Carlson
LF Mason Land
SS Brody Moore
C Nate LaRue
2B Cole Foster
Stats that exist but do not matter
Auburn is last in the SEC with 23 sacrifice flies allowed, while Alabama is best in the SEC with only eight.
This weekend is Senior Weekend, with promotions and festivities all weekend.
Friday’s Game 1 will have a 7:30 first pitch and a postgame fireworks show and be televised on SEC Network. Saturday’s Game 2 is a 2:00 PM first pitch, with Senior Day festivities commencing at 1:30 PM.
Brody Moore, Kason Howell, Garrett Farquhar, Brooks Fuller, Garrett Wade, and Carson Skipper as well as manager Bailey Decker and data analyst Riley Hubbard will be honored. Sunday’s Game 3 is at 3:00 PM, with there being a postgame autograph session for the seniors outside the clubhouse.
In addition to Friday’s televised Game 1 on SEC Network, all three games are available for streaming on SEC Network+ and will be broadcast on the Auburn Sports Network. The radio call, with Voice of the Tigers Andy Burcham and producer Brad Law, can be heard locally on 93.9 FM.
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