By Harrison Tarr
For the Observer
AUBURN — Fans of the Auburn University baseball program were sent through the ringer in 2021; their beloved Tigers stumbled their way through both conference and non-conference play, pitching was spotty at-best and it felt like Butch Thompson’s squad found a new way to blow a lead every night. At that point in time, it was logical to assume that the program was simply headed in the wrong direction.
There is one fallacy — however — in that ideology: the term ‘logical’ is seldom applicable in sports as a whole and should never be used in dissecting any program on the Plains.
Thompson and company were picked by many to finish under .500 in conference play, near the bottom in all offensive categories and dead last in the SEC West. Naturally, this group hosted an NCAA regional, defeated the No. 3 Oregon State Beavers in the super regional round and is headed to Omaha, Nebraska to compete in its second College World Series in four years.
Over the course of the past five months, the Tigers have successfully convinced their fans, opponents and record-number of season ticket holders that they deserved to compete on the national stage; this group has no intentions of backing down.
Throughout the duration of the NCAA tournament, Thompson’s offense has been lighting up opposing pitchers from nearly every slot in the lineup. This group hung 51 runs in just three games in the regional round, winning each contest seemingly effortlessly and displaying confidence at the plate.
It’s difficult to not think of Sonny DiChiara when the term ‘offensive production’ is brought up; the co-SEC player of the year has given plenty of reason to stay fresh in fans’ minds, going yard in four of the Tigers’ six postseason games and finding his way on base in each at bat in the group’s elimination game against Oregon State. DiChiara has been Auburn’s go-to guy for offensive sparks all year and the graduate transfer has shown no reason to doubt his abilities now.
On the other side of the field, the orange and blue have — in-large — done all that is necessitated. Senior outfielder Kason Howell has drawn attention through his continual flashing of the leather, forcing opponents to adapt their plate approaches in effort to slash the ball to portions of the field he can not reach, if such places even exist.
Howell has not been alone in standout defense, however. Junior catcher Nate LeRue’s efforts behind the dish can only be depicted as ‘lights-out.’ After tossing out a pair of runners in the regional round, LeRue has earned the respect of opposing managers and forced baserunners to take a more conservative approach when it comes to stealing.
From a pitching standpoint, one figures that Auburn is in its best shape since the one-two punch of Casey Mize and Tanner Burns. Sophomore Joseph Gonzalez has been remarkable all year, Mason Barnett has nearly developed into the pitcher many figured he could be and Tim Hudson’s bullpen is firing on all cylinders.
After a tough start from junior Trace Bright in game one of the super regional round, the Auburn bullpen threw eight and one-third innings of one-run baseball, fending off the Beavers and eventually earning its team the win.
Baseball is a game of patience, strategy, skill and — most importantly — determination; the 2022 Auburn Tigers have been, and continue to be, determined to prove to the rest of the college baseball world that they belong in Omaha.
Logic tells us that Auburn’s odds are slim. But then again, the words ‘logical’ and ‘Auburn’ just don’t belong in the same sentence.