2022 NCAA Tournament Auburn Regional Preview

Image credit: Sonny DiChiara (Courtesy Auburn Athletics)

Friday’s schedule

No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 4 Southeastern Louisiana (7 p.m. ET, ESPN+)

No. 2 UCLA vs. No. 3 Florida State (12 p.m. ET, ESPN2)

No. 1 Auburn (37-19)

All-Conference honorees: 1B Sonny DiChiara (first), RP Blake Burkhalter (second)

Season in a sentence: Picked to finish last in the SEC West in the preseason coaches’ poll, Auburn was one of the biggest surprises of the year nationally and now gets to host a regional for the first time since 2010.

Best pitcher: Blake Burkhalter, RHP. Burkhalter has been a factor in Auburn’s bullpen since he arrived on campus in the fall of 2019 and he this season developed into one of the SEC’s premier relievers. He is 4-2, 3.76 with 56 strikeouts and seven walks in 38.1 innings. His 13 saves are the most in the conference.  

Best hitter: Sonny DiChiara, 1B. DiChiara transferred to Auburn last year after three seasons at Samford and made an instant impact for the Tigers. He hit .379/.556/.787 with 18 home runs and was named co-SEC player of the year. He has big raw power and a disciplined approach at the plate that has yielded 62 walks and 45 strikeouts. DiChiara brought a needed jolt of power to the Auburn lineup and has accounted for nearly 30% of the team’s 59 home runs.

Outlook: Auburn has been consistently solid all season long but hasn’t put together many complete weekends. It swept just two series (as well as an abbreviated two-game series against Alabama) this season and goes into the NCAA Tournament having lost three of its last four games (all against Kentucky). It got a challenging draw, starting with a tricky opening game against Southeastern. Auburn is going to have to manage its pitching staff carefully—as it has done all year—because it doesn’t have a lockdown rotation. If head coach Butch Thompson and pitching coach Tim Hudson can call on the right arms this weekend, Auburn has the talent to advance. But nothing has been easy this season for the Tigers and this weekend will be no different.

No. 2 UCLA (38-22)

All-Conference honorees: RP Ethan Flanagan, 1B Jake Palmer, C Darius Perry, SP Max Rajcic, SS Cody Schrier, RP Alonzo Tredwell

Season in a sentence: UCLA this fall brought in the top-ranked recruiting class in the country and while that group went through some natural growing pains, the Bruins made a strong push for the Pac-12 title, finishing two games behind first-place Stanford.

Best pitcher: Max Rajcic, RHP. Rajcic took over as UCLA’s top starter at the end of April when Jake Brooks was injured. Rajcic, a sophomore, has been consistent all season and is 8-4, 3.08 with 91 strikeouts in 79 innings. He isn’t the most overpowering pitcher, but he throws a lot of strikes and has good feel on the mound.

Best hitter: Michael Curialle, OF. Curialle is the team’s leading hitter and enters the weekend batting .326/.403/.498 with nine stolen bases. He’s been a regular in the UCLA lineup for three years and this season has settled into right field. He last week went 13-for-26 and scored 10 runs at the Pac-12 Tournament.

Outlook: UCLA was bit by the injury bug down the stretch but should be healthier this weekend than it was at the Pac-12 Tournament. Rajcic was skipped last week, and shortstop Cody Schrier missed the last four games in Scottsdale. They are both slated to return this weekend, which is a big boost for the Bruins. If UCLA is to advance, it will need its pitching staff to be on the top of its game. The Bruins’ 3.99 team ERA ranks 16th nationally and they have a lot of depth to wield this weekend. UCLA will want to avoid getting into a slugfest in an offensive ballpark in Auburn, though it did show it can also pile up runs last week, scoring 55 runs in four games at the Pac-12 Tournament. Still, UCLA will go as far as its pitching takes it.

No. 3 Florida State (33-23)

All-Conference honorees: SP Bryce Hubbart (second), SP Parker Messick (first)

Season in a sentence: Like so many ACC teams this season, Florida State had mixed results, combining big wins, like their rivalry series against Miami, with some tough losses, like getting swept at North Carolina on the final weekend of the regular season.

Best pitcher: Parker Messick, LHP. Messick, the 2021 ACC Pitcher of the Year, largely lived up to the big expectations placed on him for this season. He is 6-5, 3.36 with a 0.96 WHIP. His 140 strikeouts rank third nationally. Messick’s fastball-changeup combination gives opposing hitters fits.

Best hitter: Jaime Ferrer, OF. Ferrer, a freshman, has made an instant impact in the Seminoles lineup. He’s their leading hitter and is batting .319/.441/.527 with eight home runs. The righthanded hitter has good feel at the plate and his 17 doubles lead the team.

Outlook: Florida State has as much talent on the mound as anyone in the field. Messick and Hubbart (8-2, 3.18) are a strong 1-2 punch, and the Seminoles have a strong bullpen behind them with Wyatt Crowell (6-1, 2.27) and Jonah Scolaro (2-3, 3.35) leading the way. The challenge for Florida State will be to get its bats going. Despite having such a good pitching staff, it doesn’t fare so well in close games. It is just 11-11 in one- and two-run games this year. Finding a way to separate will be key, especially as the weekend moves beyond Messick and Hubbart.


No. 4 Southeastern Louisiana (30-29)

All-Conference honorees: 1B Preston Faulkner (first), C Bryce Grizzaffi (second), SP Will Kinzeler (second), RP Gage Trahan (third)

Season in a sentence: After a loss on April 1, Southeastern was just 9-18, but the Lions were able to revive their season, going 21-11 over the next two months and beating McNeese State in the Southland Conference Tournament finals to advance to regionals for the first time since 2017.

Best pitcher: Gage Trahan, RHP. Trahan throws from a low slot and became a weapon out of the bullpen this season for the Lions. He is 4-4, 4.15 with 11 saves. He’s appeared in 30 games and has 40 strikeouts and 15 walks in 43.1 innings. In any close game this weekend, expect to see Trahan.

Best hitter: Preston Faulkner, 1B. Faulkner is a four-year starter for Southeastern and has made his senior season count, as he’s had a career year. He’s hitting .343/.463/.685 with 17 home runs and 13 stolen bases. Faulkner went 9-for-14 with five runs in the Southland Tournament finals last week against McNeese State and it’s his powerful bat that anchors the heart of the order for the Lions.

Outlook: The biggest question going into the regional for Southeastern is how much Kinzeler will be able to give the Lions. He sprained his knee last month and has been limited since then, throwing just two innings last week in the Southland Tournament finals. At his best, the righthander can hang with anyone—he beat Arkansas earlier this season—and the Lions could sure use him at his best this weekend. Even without Kinzeler at his peak, they figure to be a tough out. They put a lot of pressure on defenses and their 113 stolen bases this season rank 13th nationally. They have some pop in the lineup as well and are hot coming into the NCAA Tournament. Southeastern has a chance to spring an upset in Auburn.


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