Auburn Baseball 2017 Season-In-Review
With the 2017 season in the books for Auburn baseball, it’s time to reflect back on a campaign most college baseball coaches, fans and analysts did not see coming from second-season head coach Butch Thompson and his team of 20 new players.
Rewind back to fall ball and preseason polls, and you will find Auburn sharing the cellar with instate rival Alabama. While half of this prediction turned to truth, it did not involve the Tigers, who went on to compile a 37-26 record and go 16-14 in the SEC.
With a tumultuous 2016 season behind them, Butch Thompson and his coaching staff were able to spend a full fall not only working on fundamentals and a new brand of Auburn baseball, but also teamwork. The early morning workouts and conditioning drills centered on team building and relying on one another for those moments when talent can only get a team so far.
A highlight of the fall was a trip to the Army Ranger school obstacle course at Fort Benning to see if they had what it takes to combine both athleticism and teamwork to complete the first part of Ranger school requirements.
This is just one aspect of Butch Thompson’s preseason plan to pull the most out of another high-turnover class. The Tigers lost key bats; including a first team All-American and Golden Spikes semifinalist OF Anfernee Grier to the first round of the 2016 First Year Player Draft.
Most of the skepticism surrounding the 2017 season had its validity. The future looked bright with top recruiting coordinator and 2015 National Assistant Coach of the Year, Brad Bohannon at the helm of the Tigers’ recruitment; but a turnaround still seemed a couple seasons off.
Intriguing talent in several freshmen was supposed to be a teaser for next season, but each wasted no time in making their mark in 2017.
There was also a bright spot in the infield, with Josh Anthony taking over the hot corner and possessing a power bat that knocked in 25 homeruns with a .444 average at Western Oklahoma.
But again, nobody could have predicted he would make a name for himself more so defensively with his gold glove performance and almost weekly highlight reel plays.
Both Anthony and fellow juco transfer SS Luke Jarvis created a wall on the left side of the infield, showing an advanced feel for reading pitch location and hitters to position themselves accordingly.
Then there was transfer Jonah Todd whose summer consisted of stocking shelves at Walmart before arriving at Auburn as a walk on. He proceeded to answer some questions in the outfield, and won the starting job in center—showing off both range and speed on defense, and a solid hit-for-average bat that saw him sitting behind Mississippi State’s OF Brent Rooker at the end of the SEC regular season.
But to look at each piece individually wouldn’t tell the whole story of this 2017 team.
After starting the season winning every non-conference series, maybe only Butch Thompson and his club knew how well they would stack up against a Florida team picked to win the SEC East.
The duo of RHPs Keegan Thompson and Casey Mize proved Auburn’s ability to hang with the best, breezing through high draft prospects in RHPs Alex Faedo and Brady Singer to solidify an SEC opener win.
The tenacity and model Butch Thompson set in place during the fall of playing for each other came through on that Sunday, when Auburn completed its sweep of No. 5 Florida in walk-off fashion for the first time since 1987, the first of many records to fall.
Although Auburn fans could see the possible potential of something special, college baseball had yet to take notice of what was happening on the Plains—until South Carolina came to town.
With one of the most memorable walk-off wins in recent program history, freshman 1B Conor Davis lifted Auburn past South Carolina on a pinch-hit, two-out, three-run walk-off home run to notch a series win against a No. 6 ranked Gamecock club. That weekend marked the first time since 1996 Auburn had won a home series against South Carolina.
At this point in the season, Keegan Thompson showed he was back to pre-Tommy John form, mixing four pitches all for strikes and being able to keep hitters off balance start after start.
If there was any question about how Mize’s stuff would stack up against SEC lineups in a starting role, they were answered. He showed both maturity and durability to go deeper into games, as he found a true third offering in his splitter to complement his mid-90s fastball and wipeout slider.
With two legitimate aces on the Auburn pitching staff, opposing teams found themselves running into a buzz saw back-to-back nights.
The senior presence was felt all season, with 10 on the roster. UTL Damon Haecker found himself playing his seventh position in four years as a personal catcher for Mize—further displaying the all hands on deck attitude.
Counterpart C Blake Logan came into his fourth year overcoming an undiagnosed sickness, but ended up catching and calling almost three out of four starts all season.
While 1B/OF Daniel Robert came into his own at the plate, growing into his potential power and showing his ability to hit to all parts of the field.
Finding themselves ranked as high as fourth in country going into the middle of the conference schedule, Auburn hit several road bumps, with missed starts from both Keegan Thompson and Mize, and a key bat with Jarvis.
With Jarvis suffering from back spasms, freshman INF Will Holland stepped in and filled the hole at short, providing a steady glove and plus range; while also showing spectators a sneak peak at what next year’s infield might look like–with Davis taking over at first and Holland at short.
With a lack of pitching depth, upperclassmen RHPs Cole Lipscomb, Calvin Coker and LHP Andrew Mitchell filled in and became inning eaters. Lipscomb’s slider was swing-and-miss; as Coker’s sidearm action generated plus fastball velocity and an uncomfortable angle for hitters; while Mitchell used his over-the-top delivery and 12/6 curveball to freeze hitters.
But in the end, an added lack of offense led to Auburn limping into the SEC Tournament after getting swept by both a struggling Alabama team, and a hot LSU club before coming home to close out the regular season with a series win against Ole Miss.
Only a couple weeks before, Auburn had been in the running to host a regional, with talks of receiving one of the top eight seeds. Now going into the Tournament, a spot in the postseason was potentially on the line.
An opening win over Ole Miss, where Keegan Thompson and Mize teamed up to be arguably one of the most unfair duos to face back to back, coupled with a hard-fought game with Florida, proved to be crucial, as Selection Monday showed Auburn was one of the last four into the postseason.
Getting knocked out of the tournament early let the Tigers rest up for a trip to an all too familiar regional site in Tallahassee. With years of history at Dick Howser Stadium, it was a homecoming for the junior and seniors who played a 2015 regional on site.
Highlights from 2017’s postseason included a monster eighth-inning, three-run homerun by Holland that became the difference in a win against UCF. Keegan Thompson went eight innings, with two earned runs off four hits with one walk and nine strikeouts. He struck out the side in the seventh, and closed out his Auburn career with a win, and one of his best outings of the season.
Mize came out the next day and racked up 12 strikeouts in an 8-2 complete-game victory over Tennessee Tech, punching their ticket to the final two games against Florida State.
With Jarvis at second, he wasted no time in proving he can play both sides of the infield, making two diving stops with on-target throws during the championship Game 1.
But in the end, a heartbreaking loss in Game 3 with Florida State forced a Monday game where FSU shutdown Auburn’s offense, leading to the end of a remarkable 2017. With many feeling this team had a chance to be standing in Omaha, there is still unfinished business for an emerging program.
Those who followed this season through the highs and lows were able to see an emergence of young talent, and a team who bought into Butch Thompson’s new brand of Auburn baseball.
One tangible takeaway that shows the growth in this Auburn program would be to simply look behind the backstop on any given weekend series. A sea of radar guns Friday through Sunday is just one indicator of not only the talent, but also player development taking place.
In previous seasons, Plainsman Park was a place that relied on visiting talent to draw scouts to Hitchcock Field. Now, Auburn’s own talent is a good enough reason for scouts to spend a weekend.
And if that wasn’t enough, the University of Alabama gave one more reason, as it named Bohannon head baseball coach. As the saying goes, imitation is the greatest form of flattery.
The future looks bright for a program that performed above and beyond its believed ability in 2017. It’s only the start as it welcomes in a 2017 class with high upside both on the mound and behind the dish with RHP Tanner Burns and C Steven Williams. The only question is whether they opt for the draft.
One of the many storylines to look ahead to is the development of third weekend starter freshman RHP Davis Daniel. Daniel showed glimmers of greatness in several strong outings during conference play, and his arm looks to project well, as he showed both fluidity and looseness in an easy delivery.
With a summer ahead on the Cape, Daniel should comeback in the fall poised to take over the Saturday slot in the starting rotation.
There are not many programs in any sport that project to finish dead last and go on to sit top five in the nation for multiple weeks. Stacked lineups and teams with projectable potential can arrive at the end of the season with nothing to show.
Auburn had plenty to show. The combination of talent and camaraderie that led to Hollywood endings and a spot in a regional championship, shaped both this season and team. These are the hallmarks for a program rising in regard amongst the cream of the crop in one, if not the most talented conferences in college baseball. The best is yet to come for Auburn baseball under Butch Thompson.