AUBURN — Forty runs.
That’s how many Auburn baseball scored in a three-game blitz of the NCAA Regional in Raleigh, North Carolina — 13 against Northeastern, 12 against Army and 15 against host N.C. State. The pitching staff was also good, allowing just 12 runs in three games, but the offense performed so well that it hardly mattered.
That was only one year ago, but the gap between that offense and the one that will travel up I-85 for an NCAA Regional in Atlanta this weekend seems so much larger.
Last year’s Tigers hit .282 as a team, totaled 73 home runs and averaged 7.1 runs per game, reaching double digits 21 times. Those numbers for this year’s team are .260, 41, 5.7 and nine, respectively. The most runs it has scored during any three-game stretch this season is 29, and that was against Cincinnati and UT Martin way back at the start of March.
The silver lining, though, is that none of that has to matter in the postseason. The team that wins three games before losing two at Georgia Tech’s Russ Chandler Stadium will advance to next week’s Super Regional, and the other three will not. Nothing that took place during the regular season will change that.
Auburn still believes it has 40-run-weekend potential in its bats, despite evidence to the contrary.
“Everything that has happened is in the past. We’re looking forward,” said freshman second baseman Ryan Bliss, who was not a part of last year’s offensive fireworks. “We’re taking this week of practice and just going to get better and sharpen iron. For sure, we’re able to do what they did last year.”
It would mark a significant change if it does happen. Auburn has scored five runs or fewer in each of its last six games, winning just two of them. Of those nine games with double-digit runs, only two have come over its last 33. The Tigers scored only nine combined runs in two midweek games against the Yellow Jackets on April 2 and 16, losing both. They scored the same number of runs over three games at the SEC Tournament in Hoover last week.
That decrease in production likely has a lot to do with Edouard Julien, Will Holland and Steven Williams. Bliss earned Freshman All-SEC honors after driving in 32 runs and scoring 40; Conor Davis set career-highs across the board with a .290 batting average, six home runs and 32 RBIs; and Matt Scheffler has provided pop from the catcher spot — the Tigers might not have made the NCAA Tournament at all had he not hit a game-tying, two-run home run in the team’s regular-season finale at LSU.
But the three players who were supposed to be the foundation of the team’s lineup each regressed from 2018.
Julien, who hit .275 with 17 home runs and 69 RBIs in a record-setting freshman season, is down to .236, eight and 48 as a sophomore. Holland has hit a team-leading nine home runs this year, but that’s still three fewer than last season, and his batting average is down 73 points (.313 to .240) and his RBI total is down 24 (52 to 28).
Williams has gone from a .291 batting average, 12 home runs and 51 RBIs to .227, six and 23, respectively, as a sophomore, and with Auburn facing elimination against LSU in the SEC Tournament this past Thursday, coach Butch Thompson benched the team’s regular right fielder in favor of freshman Devin Warner, who entered with only 13 career plate appearances.
“Hopefully something clicks if we could get off to a good start,” Auburn coach Butch Thompson said. “We’ve been putting on different hats all year. It’d be really nice at this time of year that one thing would come to the forefront that we could just grab hold to and kind of lead. Can we really go pitch in a tournament to win a tournament? Can we really come out and start swinging in a tournament?”
There have been signs of life recently, at least from the former two of those stars. Holland has been one of the team’s hottest hitters in the month of May, batting .333 with five home runs and 12 RBIs. Julien bounced back from getting pinch-hit for in the regular-season finale at LSU by going 3 for 10 with three RBIs at the SEC Tournament, an effort that included a go-ahead single in the eighth inning of Thursday’s eventual loss to LSU.
They’ll have a chance to continue that at this weekend’s Regional, which begins Friday against Coastal Carolina (11 a.m. Central, ESPNU). For as good as the Chanticleers are on offense — they’re tied for third nationally having scored 501 runs this season — they’re not particularly strong on the mound, as top starters Anthony Venziano and Austin Kitchen have ERAs of 4.26 and 6.78, respectively.
The Tigers definitely had fun at this time last season when they totaled 50 hits in 26 innings. Julien, Holland and Williams were at the center of that effort, combining for 20 of those hits and 16 of the 40 runs driven in.
They’re hoping for a repeat of Raleigh in Atlanta.
“There’s no quit. There’s no, ‘Hey, we’ll get ‘em next year.’ We’re still trying to build this team and see if something neat can come together,” Thompson said. “It’s been a couple of months since we felt like we’ve played our best baseball. That’s still out there for us because we have this opportunity to go to Atlanta.”