By Wil Crews
With the recent success of the basketball team — and the recent upheaval of the football coaching staff — it may be easy for Auburn fans to forget about another university sport that is a top-25 national program in the making: Auburn baseball.
We are five seasons into head coach Butch Thompson’s reign, and just two seasons ago Auburn reached the College World Series for the first time since 1997.
Last March, when the remainder of the 2020 baseball season was suddenly canceled due to the pandemic, Auburn was ranked No. 15 in the USA Today Coaches Poll and possessed the talent necessary to make another run at the tournament in Omaha.
Despite the departure of ace Tanner Burns and a couple of other key pieces, the Tigers look like they will field another competitive team in 2021.
Like many SEC teams and others around the country, Auburn boasts an unusually deep roster, with many veterans who would have normally moved on or jumped to the professional ranks returning thanks in part to the NCAA’s decision to grant an extra year of eligibility to athletes whose previous seasons were affected by the pandemic.
“A lot of these guys went to Omaha,” said starting third baseman Rankin Woley. “They’re proven winners. That’s going to help us going forward that we can show the younger guys this is what it takes to win.”
The experience that Woley is referencing is best exemplified in Auburn’s outfield, which has been the same since its magical 2019 run to Omaha. With Judd Ward in left, Kason Howell in center and Steven Williams in right, the outfield boasts a plethora of experience.
Preseason All-Americans, Woley and shortstop Ryan Bliss headline the infield. The duo was among the top performers of Auburn’s shortened 2020 season. Bliss ranked second in the SEC and sixth in the country in hits, while also appearing in the SEC’s top 10 for runs (21) and doubles (seven). “Ryan Bliss can get on anybody’s fastball,” said Thompson. “He’s getting ready to play his third season now, so he’s bigger, faster, stronger than he was as a freshman when you remember him playing a complete season.”
Woley, who gets “called Dad every now and then from some of the younger guys,” hit for a sweet .412 average last year and also ranked top 10 in the league in hits, doubles (eight) and RBIs (22).
As far as pitching goes, Auburn will have to replace two-thirds of its weekend rotation, with Burns and Bailey Horn drafted to the Major Leagues in the first and fifth round, respectively. Look for southpaw Jake Owen and right handers Richard Fitts and Cody Greenhill (closer turned starter) to take up that mantle. Mason Barnett is another name to look out for, as he impressed in his debut Auburn season last year, striking out more than two batters per inning in his six appearances.
Despite the talent and experience of the seasoned players being abundantly clear, there is always room for newcomers to make their mark. Freshman infielders Cole Foster and Bryson Ware will have their opportunities to crack the lineup, and sophomore outfielder Bobby Pierce could see some time too.
Overall, Thompson is looking for his 2021 team to be well-rounded and balanced, with plenty of depth available to always ride the hot hand.
“I feel like we’re ahead,” Thompson said. “I feel like we’ve been a pretty good defensive team in the last couple years. You know, maybe just throwing the baseball might have kept us from winning a big one at some point. But our power’s up, and we still think we can defend the three acres out here Plainsman Park pretty good. Our power and speed by a couple guys in the middle of field makes us feel like we, you know, are a little bit further offensively, further along at the start of the season than we’ve been.”
The Tigers still have just under three weeks to go until the season opener on Feb. 19. Thompson has a big challenge ahead, but the potential of his team is undeniable.
“Our challenge is we’ve been together less than we’ve ever been going into a season,” Thompson said. “My mind says control what you can control. Get this team as ready as you possibly can because that’s been a strength of our ballclub these last few years for sure. We’ll get opportunities is what I’m going to sell to our guys. You don’t have to have this big chip on your shoulder. You don’t have to feel great. You don’t have to feel like you’re being disrespected. What you do is we’re preparing for an opportunity. We’ll get to do it first weekend against Presbyterian.”