All-American Casey Mize is one of six players nationally to be named to the 2017 Golden Spikes Award Watch List. The junior pitched six shutout innings in Auburn's opener. (photo: USA TODAY Sports)
The 2017 Auburn baseball team surprised a lot of people. Picked in the preseason to finish last in the SEC West, the Tigers played most of the season at the top of the league until injuries slowed down their momentum.
No one expected Auburn to finish any higher than last place in the league, yet the Tigers came within one strike of playing in their first Super Regional since 1999. Butch Thompson’s experience in helping take teams to the postseason was a big factor in Auburn getting there and finishing with 37 wins despite going through six weeks at the end of the year without pitchers Casey Mize or a healthy Keegan Thompson.
Even so, Auburn earned a berth in the Tallahassee Regional. And it looked for awhile as if the Tigers might be playing in their first Super Regional in 18 years. That dream ended in game two of the Regional Championship round against Florida State.
The Tigers had a couple of opportunities to win the championship in the ninth and tenth innings of the first best of two game championship finals. However, cruel fate and a field umpire’s bad call on a double play intervened to prevent that from happening.
That loss put the Tigers in a precarious position. Auburn’s best chance to make it to the next level was to win it in three games. With Mize, Cole Lipscomb, and Keegan Thompson unable to pitch, the Tiger bats had to produce. That didn’t happen as Auburn was baffled by the junk-throwing Will Zirzow, and the season ended in at Dick Howser Stadium. The Seminoles went on to play in the College World Series.
The closeness of Auburn making it to the College World Series left the Tigers disappointed but motivated to make 2018 ‘the’ year. There are 17 players back from that team and they are determined to build on last year and maybe lead the 18 new players to Omaha.
Two positives that could help the Tigers reach their goal this season are the return of All-American Casey Mize and the hiring of former Major Leaguer Gabe Gross as the Tigers’ hitting coach. Gross is one of the greatest players in the history of Auburn Baseball. The first round draft pick was a three-year starter for Auburn from 1999-2001, a two time All-SEC outfielder, and a first-team All-American in 2000 when he led the Southeastern Conference in hitting with a .430 batting average.
Those reasons coupled with last year’s success should help the Tigers reach the next level in 2018. Thompson said last season his vision of the next level is the College World Series. This year the third year coach said, “As heart breaking as it was not to acquire one more positive pitch in a regional last year … I do believe that vision changed to something tangible. We can see it and taste it and touch it and believe in it.”
The Tigers opened the 2018 season over the weekend on fire, bombing the Longwood Lancers with 34 runs while allowing only one run in three games. Casey Mize pitched six shutout innings and struck out seven while earning the win in the season opener. Granted Longwood is far from SEC caliber competition. Nevertheless it was a great start for the Tigers on their quest to get to Omaha.
Auburn (3-0) hosts Georgia State (2-1) and Troy (4-0) on Tuesday and Wednesday in4 p.m. games at Plainsman Park. The Georgia State game will be broadcast on SEC Network+.
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