Auburn Eliminated From CWS, but Not Before Establishing New Standard
OMAHA — It’s tough to strike an appreciative note after your team is unceremoniously eliminated from the College World Series, as Auburn was Tuesday night.
Not only was the final score 11-1 in a loss to Arkansas, but it wasn’t even as close as that final score suggests. Arkansas righthander Will McEntire turned in by far his best outing of the season by giving up one run on three hits in seven innings with nine strikeouts. And on the mound, Auburn cycled through seven pitchers in an attempt to slow down a Razorbacks lineup that didn’t really slow down on the way to collecting 16 hits.
And yet, Auburn coach Butch Thompson was able to strike a note of appreciation anyway.
“My first thought is just an exceptional group of people that make up Auburn, especially this baseball team,” Thompson said. “I didn't want this ride to end. I enjoyed getting up every morning and being fortunate enough to be with this group.”
But then again, that’s the note Auburn has struck here in Omaha since its arrival. Before the games got underway, Thompson was quick to talk about what getting back here so quickly after its last trip in 2019 meant for the program.
“This is our sixth trip to Omaha, and our university is ecstatic,” he said last Thursday. “We were here in 2019. We do have a few of those players that returned. And those are probably some of our best leaders. We've added some pieces along the way to get back here (in) two of the last three tournaments. Couldn't be happier. Had an amazing journey through the rigorous SEC and still looks like we'll have to compete against some of those foes here this week.”
Thompson also wasn’t shy about talking about how big it was for his team to win a game in the CWS, as it did against Stanford Monday afternoon.
“It's not just a win,” Thompson said. “It's important for us as we continue to try to build ours and build a brand of respectability, sincere respectability with our program. So it is a big deal and it gives us a chance to compete again.”
Auburn is no doubt disappointed to be going home after going 1-2, but if you look at the big picture, it’s hard not to appreciate what the Tigers have done of late, and not just this season.
There are a number of programs in the SEC where getting to the College World Series can be taken for granted, but Auburn historically isn’t one of them. When Thompson arrived on The Plains, the Tigers had been to the postseason twice in the previous 10 seasons.
It’s been a different story since then. Not only has Auburn been to Omaha twice in the last three full seasons, but it has been in the postseason four times in the last six full seasons, which is a return to the consistency the program enjoyed throughout the 1990s and early 2000s when it went to seven straight regionals between 1997-2003.
“When I got on campus in 2018, coming from—preparing for the 2019 season, that 2018 team that had a heartbreaking loss in the super regional in Florida, you could tell something was happening with the program that we were striving for this moment right now, for two College World Series appearances in three years,” said center fielder Kason Howell.
Zooming in, it’s also hard not to appreciate what Auburn did within the context of this season.
These Tigers were coming off of finishing next-to-last in the SEC West in 2021, and in the preseason coaches poll this season, they were picked to finish last in the West.
They lost their top three hitters for average and top four home run hitters off of last year’s team, they were going to be leaning hard on mid-major transfers from Samford to patch some holes and it was unclear, to say the least, who was going to lead the pitching staff.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing—Auburn did lose a non-conference series to Middle Tennessee State just before the start of conference play, after all—but enough came together to help the Tigers keep their heads above water all season in the rough-and-tumble SEC.
When it was all said and done, they were hosting a regional for the first time since 2010 as the first stop on what amounted to a return trip to Omaha for a number of guys on the roster.
“A lot of people can say that coming to Omaha is a once-in-a-lifetime, but for me, Brody (Moore) and Kason and all the other guys that have been here twice, it's an incredible feeling to be able to come to a place with such joy and happiness to the whole college baseball world more than one time,” said lefthander Carson Skipper.
What comes next is not entirely clear. A whole host of veterans, including top hitter (and charismatic personality) Sonny DiChiara, one of the aforementioned Samford transfers, will get their shots at pro baseball or will graduate from the program.
But what’s been made obvious by the run that this Auburn team went on is that no matter how things shake out from here, the expectation has been set.
It used to be that a season like this would likely lead right into Auburn taking a big step back to start from scratch all over again, but that’s not what Auburn is anymore. And that’s worth appreciating.