By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - It’s fitting that Butch Thompson has chosen three words to provide as a guide for Auburn’s baseball season.
This is, after all, the sport that gave us “three strikes and you’re out,” three outs in an inning, and the time-tested offensive strategy, “get ‘em on, get ‘em over, get ‘em in.”
Thompson’s trio? Attack. Legacy. Vision.
“We’re trying to attack every day, not looking back,” Thompson said. “We’ve got some older guys, some seniors in our program who are trying to leave a legacy, so hopefully they’re showing an example, and we’re trying to teach them how to do that every day.
“No matter the circumstances or where you’re at currently, you’re always going to have a vision. With our support, with our tradition and with these young men, we’re going to aim as high as we possibly can. And that’s what we’re supposed to do.”
Auburn starts practice on Friday, three weeks before the Feb. 17 opener against George Washington.
“We’ve been pushing,” said Thompson of the Tigers’ fall practice. “I’ve seen growth.”
Of the 35 players on Auburn’s roster, 20 are new. “So I’m really counting on the 15 guys who have done it before to lead by example,” Thompson said.
“We feel like we’ve increased our skill,” he said. “We feel like we have more of a known, consistent starting rotation. We lost some offensive pieces, but how we’ve performed and how we’ve practiced and how we’ve prepared, we think we’re better than what people may anticipate.
Thompson, a member of the 2014 SEC All-Freshman Team, returns after missing 2016 with an injury. Mize led the Tigers with 59 strikeouts in 69 innings last season. Daniel, a freshman from St. James in Montgomery, was the state’s No. 1 right-handed pitcher in the class of 2016.
“If we can figure out a middle of the lineup, if we can figure out the back end of our bullpen, those are crucial pieces to figure out, but we do feel like we have some concrete direction, and where to go from a starting pitching standpoint,” Thompson said.
“Josh Anthony’s been a great, neat addition to our program from Western Oklahoma,” Thompson said. “He’s played a really good third base since arriving at campus.”
If Anthony comes anywhere close to duplicating his junior college stats – No. 2 in homeruns (25), No. 4 in RBI (84) and No. 1 in runs (112) – it would lessen Thompson’s concern about the middle of the lineup.
Senior catcher Blake Logan, who started 28 games behind the plate last season, returns.
“I think he has grown leaps and bounds, especially in fall practice with where he’s at defensively in handling our pitchers,” Thompson said. “I’ve been impressed.”
Sophomore Mike Rojas, a junior college transfer, will share catching duties. “We’ll need both of those guys to get through a 56-game schedule,” Thompson said.
“They had good falls,” Thompson said. “They played good baseball, but their leadership may be the biggest tool to how they help this team win.”
Thompson also likes the versatility of senior infielder Damon Haecker, who has even added catching to his array of infield options.
“If we can see one older player serving and doing whatever it takes just to make our team better, where his team needs him, I hope everybody can see Damon’s example and act upon that,” Thompson said.
Auburn will use 12 intrasquad scrimmages, beginning Friday, to answer Thompson’s questions about bullpen, lineup and batting order.
“We feel like we’re much improved defensively,” he said. “We were at the bottom of the league in pitching and defense.”
Pitching, dominating the routine play, and timely hitting. Those are principles Thompson and his staff are emphasizing in their second season.
“We’re trying to continue to build our program that way,” he said. “Try to coach our boys that way. Try to build our identity in that fashion.”
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer