OMAHA, Neb. — On June 12, 2018, the day after Auburn lost to Florida in a super regional, Tanner Burns tweeted four words: “We will be back.”
The Tigers did go back, and this time they won, defeating North Carolina two games to one. They went to the College World Series, a feat the program had accomplished only four times before and not since 1997.
Auburn’s stay in Omaha, Nebraska, lasted just one week. The team lost 5-4 to Mississippi State on Sunday and 5-3 to Louisville on Wednesday to be eliminated from the eight-team field. But barely an hour after the final out was recorded, the Decatur High grad Burns tweeted again.
“Last year I said we would be back in the Super Regionals, and I didn’t lie,” he wrote. “Well, we will be back in Omaha next year.”
A return would fit within the upward trajectory Butch Thompson has had this program on since he took over as head coach prior to the 2016 season. Auburn missed the postseason that year, but it nearly won a regional in 2017; swept a regional and nearly won a super regional in 2018; and swept a regional, won a super regional and made it to the College World Series in 2019.
Winning a few games and truly contending in Omaha is the next logical step.
“The intentions won’t change,” Thompson said. “I’ve had one year where I’ve been satisfied. We won a national championship (as an assistant at Birmingham-Southern in 2001). Every other year I’ve ever coached, I’ve felt like a failure, and I do today. But as far as our players and our program and everybody that supports it, we should feel really good about where we’ve got Auburn baseball.”
Of course, getting back to the College World Series is no easy feat. There are 297 Division I college baseball teams and only eight can take the field at TD Ameritrade Park. Of the eight who did this past week, only three — Arkansas, Mississippi State and Texas Tech — were here last year, and none of those were here the year before that.
But the Tigers feel like they’re going to have the pieces to make a run. Look up and down the roster that just completed one of the best NCAA Tournaments the program has ever had, and it’s easy to understand why — of the 16 players who either started in the field or stood on the mound, only one (shortstop Will Holland, a fifth-round MLB Draft pick by the Minnesota Twins) is a guaranteed departure. The only seniors on the roster are reliever Blake Schilleci and reserve infielder Brett Olson.
Right-hander Davis Daniel, the St. James product who pitched only two innings before suffering an arm injury that eventually led to Tommy John surgery, will also likely not return — the Los Angeles Angels selected him in the seventh round — but he did not appear in any game after opening day.
On offense, designated hitter Conor Davis, catcher Matt Scheffler and first baseman Rankin Woley will be seniors; left fielder Judd Ward and right fielder Steven Williams will be juniors; and second baseman Ryan Bliss (who is a good bet to take over for Holland shortstop) and center fielder Kason Howell will be sophomores. That's seven of nine everyday players in the lineup.
The only regular who has a real decision to make is rising junior third baseman Edouard Julien, who was draft-eligible as a sophomore this year and selected by the Minnesota Twins in the 18th round of the MLB Draft. But he didn't sound like a player leaning toward leaving on Wednesday.
“I haven’t thought about that for the past four weeks. I wanted to win with all these guys in this locker room,” Julien said of the draft. “I think we only have Will leaving next year. Everyone is going to be back, and we'll probably add some good players next year, so I think we have a bright future. We'll work harder and become better."
Left-handed pitchers Jack Owen (21st round) and Elliott Anderson (23rd) also have decisions to make about their future, but the former — who is only a sophomore — didn’t seem particularly focused on his professional future just yet and seems more than capable of improving his draft stock with a strong junior season.
If he returns, that would mean Auburn could enter the 2020 season with a trio of starters (Owen, Burns and Bailey Horn); the bulk of its best relievers (Cody Greenhill, Richard Fitts, Ryan Watson and potentially Anderson); and a group of young pitchers (Brooks Fuller, Garrett Wade, Carson Skipper, Will Morrison and Kyle Gray) perhaps capable of taking a step forward now that they have a year playing in the SEC under their belts.
“The experience, even if a guy didn’t get on the field, living this for a week — we got to sit here for a week in this environment, so when we make teaching points, I have been telling them it’s hard to communicate, and now they know,” Thompson said. “I have been telling them there is a lot of fanfare and a lot of distractions and now they’ve lived it. I think these are all things that will benefit us moving forward.”
So Auburn will lose a lot less than it did after last season, when No. 1 overall pick Casey Mize; pitchers Andrew Mitchell and Calvin Coker; and position players Jay Estes, Brendan Venter, Bret Wright, Luke Jarvis and Josh Anthony all moved on to the next level. There’s also a good chance the Tigers’ 15-man signing class will produce some instant-impact additions, like Julien, Williams, Burns and Greenhill two years ago and Bliss, Howell and Fitts this season.
The Tigers might have a hard time getting Selma shortstop Gunnar Henderson — the first pick of the second round (by the Baltimore Orioles) — to campus, but Thompson felt good about his team’s chances to hold onto most of the rest of its 2019 signees, including McGill-Toolen catcher Nathan LaRue and Gallatin (Tenn.) left-hander Hayden Mullins.
Put all that together, and Auburn might have a chance to make a deep postseason run that doesn’t surprise anyone and, in the process, turn another Burns promise into reality.
“We had a lot of new pieces this year, a lot of young guys, underclassmen. I think almost all of those guys are coming back next year,” Bliss said. “We made it to Omaha this year, so I don’t see why we shouldn’t be back next season with the experience we’ve got and the guys we’ve got coming back.”