Auburn entered the weekend series versus plucky Northeastern with a perfect 13-0 record. They finished with a series win, the only blemish being a 2-1 loss in the series finale, in what was a highly entertaining weekend. The Tigers are now 15-1 as they start SEC play next weekend, hosting Texas A&M.
The headliner, obviously, was Friday's no-hitter by junior right-hander Casey Mize, signaling to the nation he'll again be a serious force this season.
Mize, who was outstanding last year (8-2, 2.04 ERA, just 9 walks vs 109 strikeouts over 83.2 innings), was held out of fall ball after a brief summer stint with Team USA, one that ended with a minor complaint of forearm stiffness.
It's not surprising he had to shake off a bit of rust early this season. After blanking Longwood over six easy innings in the season opener, Mize was touched up in his second outing by Bryant from the lightly regarded Northeast Conference, yielding two homers and four runs in the first three innings. That start raised an eye-brow or two around the country.
Lost in the translation is the fact that Bryant is a serious mid-major program (see our Fall Ball story here) and that Mize rebounded with five no-hit innings the following Friday versus another good hitting team, BYU, before allowing two earned runs in the 6th.
Casey Mize (courtesy of Auburn Athletics)
On Friday Mize left no doubt he's one of the best right-handers in the college game and a sure-fire high pick in June's MLB draft. He was near perfect, facing just one batter over the minimum (a 4th inning error) against Northeastern, the defending regular-season Colonial Athletic Association champion, a team that entered the series with an .371 team on-base percentage and an early season series split with Missouri.
"In my 27 years that's about as good as I've seen on the mound", said head coach Butch Thompson. "I have to say, after the eighth inning, I'm thinking of the long season, the worrisome coach, I gotta take care of him. I started sayin' 'I don't know if we're gonna do this', and about seven people stepped in front me, poked me in the chest and told me to turn around, go back to my little post or whatever I do".
Butch Thompson (Stu Murray)
Mize had a feeling this would be a special outing. "I realized early that I was pretty much in command".
That may be the understatement of the young season.
Mize struck out the side in the first inning, all on swing & misses, and never looked back. In fact, he chalked up 12 swing & miss K's of this 13 total strikeouts, and afterwards credited his "split change" as the wipeout pitch that baffled Husky hitters, an offering with exceptional sink and tail, as you can see below.
For a power pitcher Mize has freakish command of an arsenal that features a pure 96-97 heater, a promising 90-91 cutter ("that's starting to come around now, as he didn't feature it last year", said Thompson) and that split change. He was particularly efficient in throwing just 105 pitches, 77 for strikes, reaching a three-ball count only once, in the 28th and last batter he faced. "That's his separator. He has authority over the baseball when he's right", said Thompson.
For those still questioning his durability, Mize also maintained his velocity on this special night, touching 96 as he mowed down the last three Husky hitters in the 9th inning.
Saturday starter and draft-eligible sophomore right-hander Davis Daniel has been somewhat of an enigma since landing in Auburn as a blue-chip recruit. Last year he made 9 SEC starts, posting a 5.06 ERA and .244 OBA, and had a similar track record in a short Cape League stint, making 4 starts and producing a 5.28 ERA for Brewster.
In addition to improving his fastball command, pitching coach Steve Smith would like to see Daniel simplify his arsenal, choosing between two fastballs & two breaking pitches.
"I think the future for Davis will be as a power sinker guy. His two-seamer sits in the low 90's with live action, and, at its' best, induces a ton of ground balls". While on the Cape, Daniel also developed a good change-up, a pitch Smith really likes.
Davis Daniel (courtesy of Auburn Athletics)
In the first game of Saturday's double-header, a situation where Thompson and Smith would liked to have seen Daniel stretch out and eat innings, he registered only 10 outs, giving up 7 hits, walking two and striking out four before departing in the 4th inning.
The highly talented Daniel remains a work in progress heading into SEC play.
This year's top recruit is right-hander Tanner Burns, who started Saturday's nightcap and showed why Scott Boras took interest as his adviser coming out of high school.
"Boras doesn't make mistakes" said Smith. "The first time you look at Tanner, you say 'there's a catcher'. Then you watch him throw. He's one of the most physically gifted kids you'll ever see, with a 95-plus fastball, an incredible spin rate. He also has the best feet on the staff, just a really good athlete".
Burns is so much more than pure gas. He'll mix in some "Johnny Cueto" deliveries while featuring a power breaking ball and a change-up that he just picked up in the fall. "He's out there trying to disrupt timing. How many 18 years olds are trying to do that?" said Smith
Tanner Burns (courtesy of Auburn Athletics)
Perhaps most impressive is Burns' desire to get better. "He has the thirst for learning of a 10-year old" said Smith. "In the Fall, in his own north Alabama twang, he asks me 'coach, you like the slider? You think its a good pitch?'. He just cracks me up".
In this outing Burns fastball sat 91-93, touching 95 on several occasions. In addition to a straight over-the-top, explosive fastball, that pitch also tailed and cut a few times, without losing velocity.
And yes, Burns mixed his delivery, particularly early, showcasing a mid-delivery pause, followed shortly thereafter with a quick-pitch offering.
You just don't see such a "power-artist" very often.
While Burns did walk four and allow two earned runs, he also struck out five in 4.1 innings against many competitive Northeastern at-bats. He left the game down 2-0 and was spelled by fellow freshman righty Cody Greenhill.
Greenhill appears to be the primary closer for the Tigers. "He's super competitive, has the perfect makeup for the role", said Smith. He's a physical specimen at 6-4, 216 lbs with a great feel for a low-70's curve ball, complimented by a 88-90 fastball with arm-side run.
He retired 14 of the 16 Huskies he faced, including the last seven straight, and now has allowed just one earned run in 18.1 innings for a 0.49 ERA. He's struck out 20 and frustrated opposing hitters to the tune of a .182 batting average.
The other key cog in the Auburn bullpen is senior sidewinding right-hander Calvin Coker. The 6-3 Coker has significant cross-fire action, with his stride foot landing well to the third-base side, making him really tough on right-handed hitters.
"He's so durable and reliable, it's really hard not to pitch him at the first sign of trouble", said Smith.
Therein lies one of the major questions for Auburn. Who will be the "bridge guys" between their premium starters and back end weapons? Thompson and Smith are still searching for those arms.
Looking at position players, a key addition is catcher Brett Wright, a 6-0, 210 pound ball-of-muscle with plus catch & throw skills. He was brought in from San Jacinto JC as somewhat of an insurance policy as blue chip freshman catcher/OF Steven Williams learned the ropes behind the plate. It's obvious that he and Mize have quickly developed great rapport.
Wright's bat out of the 6-hole, however, has surprised in the early going this season. After a 3-7 weekend that included two homers in the 14-8 win in Game 1 of Saturday's double header, he's now slashing .344/.533/.969(!).
Another newcomer announcing his arrival with authority is JC transfer and infielder Brendan Venter. Recruited to fill the expected void of third-baseman Josh Anthony, he's playing first base after Anthony decided to return for his senior year.
Hitting in the 3-hole, Venter offers a physical presence, advanced plate discipline (7 walks vs just 3 strikeouts) and significant power. He opened Friday's game with a towering 2-run blast that sailed well over the monster and deep into the night. He went 6-13 in the series and is now slashing .467/.562/.717.
Two highly touted freshman have also immediately jumped into the lineup and have been productive.
The first is Williams, currently playing right-field. Listed at 6-3, 216 lbs, he's capable of putting on 10-15 additional pounds and adding to his already prodigious power. A smooth swinging lefty, Williams put on a batting-practice show this weekend, easily launching bombs to the pull side. He's slugging a cool .590 on the year and promises to strike fear in opposing college pitchers for years to come.
The other freshman is DH/infielder Edouard Julien, a switch-hitter from Canada. He was a bit inconsistent over the weekend but still managed to go 4-10, including a homer and an 8th inning double Sunday that broke up the no-hit bid by Northeastern's Sean Mellen.
As a connoisseur of infield defense, this unit appears to be one of the best in the SEC. Anthony dazzled a year ago with the glove and can make all the plays. Shortstop Will Holland can also pick it with the best of them, and he's added some quality weight and pop with the bat.
If you want soft hands, I offer you those of second baseman Luke Jarvis. Watching him closely during INF/OF, he receives ground balls with a pudding soft glove. He also has plus range and a solid arm.
As Auburn opens SEC play this week in hosting Texas A&M, there are three key factors to watch:
1) Davis Daniel and his maturation on the mound
2) Finding bullpen bridge guys
3) Offensive production vs premium SEC arms
If the Tigers get satisfactory answers to those questions, there's no reason they can't be a national seed and make a deep post season run.