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  Baseball Starts Feb. 16

Auburn basketball has kept Tiger fans happy throughout the winter months, but Auburn baseball is creeping up faster than you might know. After an exciting 2017 season that included an NCAA Tournament appearance, the Tigers start the 2018 season on Feb. 16 against Longwood.

Head coach Butch Thompson returns for his third season as Auburn has realistic potential to build off a 2017 season that some consider just the beginning of a strong tenure for Thompson. Auburn compiled a 37-26 overall record last year, including going 16-14 in a strong SEC field, and making the NCAA Tournament.

In the tournament, the Tigers had a chance to win the Tallahassee Regional, winning its first two games to advance to the championship. However, Auburn fell in back-to-back games to Florida State, ending its season and leaving fans with hopes of something bigger in 2018. The good news is 2018 could live up to high expectations.

In the field, Auburn could return starters at every position other than catcher and an outfield spot. The infield is stacked with talent, including Luke Jarvis at second base, Josh Anthony at third and Will Holland at short stop. And while catcher is a tossup, with Mike Rojas being the only returner at the position, first base could have a host of Tigers, including Conor Davis and Dylan Ingram, but Brendan Venter is the player that might be worth watching the closest.

Venter, a transfer from McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas, batted .353 last year with team highs in home runs (15) and RBI (69). Venter is said to be the real deal, so expect Thompson to have him on the field immediately.

The outfield is just as loaded. Jay Estes returns after leading the team with team with 19 doubles in 2017. Davis, whose .282 batting average leads all returning players, has limited experience in the outfield, but heís expected to get a look in right against Bowen McGuffin and Cade Evans as other options.

The fun battle to watch in pre-season camp is between Judd Ward and Jeremy Johnson. Johnsonís playing time increased last year, starting 12 of the 22 games in which he played, as he batted .229 with two doubles. Ward, a freshman out of Russellville (Ala.) High, batted a career .468 average and recorded 189 runs, 114 RBI, 81 stolen bases and 11 home runs in 144 high school games. He was rated the 11 th best player and fifth best outfield in Alabama.

Designated hitter will likely include one of the above-mentioned players, but itís possible itís Ingram, who fielded the position frequently last year. Ingram, known for his big stick, led the team last year with eight home runs.

Though the lineup seems like it could be strong, Thompsonís expertise has always been pitching. And even with last yearís opening-day starter Keegan Thompson graduated, the Tigers will still have a strong starting rotation.

Casey Mize is expected to be this yearís Friday night starter after making a name for himself in 2017 when Thompson missed starts due to an injury. Mize had an 8-2 record with a 2.04 ERA. He struck out 109 batters and walked only nine in 83 2/3 innings.

The level of role Tanner Burns plays on the mound this year isnít known, but he will stick solely to pitching. The 2017 Mr. Baseball receipt out of Decatur (Ala.) High has the talent to pitch and bat, but the freshman informed Thompson the mound is where he wants to be.

Burns joins the team Perfect Gameís No. 4-rated player in Alabama and No. 33 in the country. Baseball America rated him as the No. 38 prospect overall, and he was drafted out of high school in the 37th round by the New York Yankees.

Other pitchers Auburn is expected to use in 2018 include Davis Daniel, who will likely be the Saturday starting pitcher, and bullpen options Ryan Watson, Cody Greenhill and Corey Herndon.

Despite the Tigersí strong starting performances last season, the bullpen often had difficulties closing games out. This is something to watch early in non-conference play.

Auburn will play four non-conference weekend series and six mid-week games, including against Georgia Tech and Troy at home and against UAB at Regions Field, before opening conference play at home against Texas A&M on March 16. Home conference series this year include Missouri (March 30-April 1), Mississippi State (April 13-15), Vanderbilt (May 4-6) and LSU (May 17-19). The Capital City Classic against Alabama is scheduled for March 27. The SEC Tournament in Hoover is May 22-27, and the NCAA Regionals start June 1.


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