The early season “feeling out” period for Auburn baseball continues, as Coach Butch Thompson tries to replace key offensive pieces that have moved on in SS Ryan Bliss (MLB), C/OF Steven Williams (MLB), 1B Tyler Miller (MLB) , and 3B Rankin Woley (graduation). Incoming transfers 1B Sonny DiChiara (.538/.649/.1.269, 4 HRs, 8 RBIs, 14 R) and leadoff hitter RF/3B Blake Rambusch (.303/.368/.394, 3 steals, 3 RBIs, 8 R ) have shown to be offensive stalwarts, having started every game for their new team and provided a spark both on and off the field. They’re joined at the top of the stat sheet by outfielder Kason Howell (.357/.472/.536, 1 HR, 2 steals, 9 RBIs, 7 R), a senior with 132 starts in centerfield and an anchor in the locker room. Sophomore 2B Cole Foster (.240/.406/.400, 1 HR, 13 RBIs) won the 2nd base job out of fall camp and delivers loud contact and a smooth glove at 2B.
Senior SS Brody Moore (.250/.314/.281, 7 Rs), his double-play partner, has stepped into the shoes of Ryan Bliss and continues to be a defensive leader, with no errors across his 72 innings of game action .
Once you move to the next tier of guys, Auburn is still mixing and rotating guys to determine the best fit for each matchup. INF Garrett Farquhar has appeared in all eight games with three starts, all at 3B on the days Blake Rambusch is in right field. While he continues to search for his first offensive hit after 11 at-bats, he provides good defense and versatility, with the ability to play anywhere around the infield. Outfielders Brayton Brown (.111/.333/.111, 3 RBIs) and Josh Hall (.364/.462/.455, 2 R) seem to be the 3rd option in the outfield on days Blake Rambusch appears at 3B, with Hall contributing a memorable steal of home in Arlington as well as bunting prowess.
The catching position is uniquely stacked, with three different catchers all earning playing time so far this year. Sophomore slugger Ryan Dyal (.231/.444/.269, 6 RBIs, 8 Rs) has played in every game this season, rotating between DH and catcher (and one impressive start in LF, with two defensive assists in the first inning) . Butch Thompson has made it a point to get Dyal in the lineup every day, impressed with his 100 ABs in fall ball with only three strikeouts. Rotating in with him at catcher has been grad transfer Jake Wyandt, a defensive specialist who came to Auburn by way of Presbyterian, where he was Big South Second Team all-conference and on the Buster Posey Award watch list based on the strength of his defense .
Wyandt has started 4 games for Auburn at catcher, still looking for a hit after his first 13 at-bats but with one RBI, getting on against Alabama State due to catcher’s interference with the bases loaded. The third catcher is junior Nate LaRue, who has played in six games with three starts, all at DH, but also has made a defensive appearance against Yale as a substitute and also has three innings pitched, all scoreless with three total hits allowed over two appearances.
The plan appears to be Dyal and Wyandt as the primary position player options, with Dyal serving as the DH while Wyandt starts and, as of now, LaRue being the DH during Dyal’s starts.
Two guys that Auburn hasn’t seen as much as expected this season are graduate transfer INF Brooks Carlson, who accompanied Sonny DiChiara from Samford, and INF/LHP Cam Hill. Carlson, who is recovering from a hairline fracture in his thumb, is a corner infield known for his bat, hitting over .300 all four of his years at Samford and making the 2020 Collegiate Baseball All-America First Team. He’s taking swings now and expected back in a few weeks, and could either play DH or take over at 1B, moving DiChiara to DH (despite Sonny’s perfect 1,000 fielding percentage in 54 defensive chances).
Cam Hill, who played in 40 games in 2021 with a .270/.364/.477 slash line and 5 HRs, 22 RBIs, and 19 runs scored spent most of his playing time in 2021 at DH or appearing out of the bullpen, albeit only ten appearances with poor statistical results (19.29 ERA, with 14 hits and 16 runs in seven innings). He’s appeared in 4 games for Auburn this season, with two starts, and is averaging .333/.400/.444 with one RBI and 3 runs in nine plate appearances.
Auburn’s offense as a whole has been hot and cold to start this season, with a team slash line of .259/.387/.407 with eight home runs and 54 RBIs, but 3 games of double digits runs contrasted by 4 games of four run or less. Of particular note are the strikeouts, with Auburn hitters striking out 76 times over 263 at-bats, with only 40 walks (and, weirdly, 18 HBPs). The 6-2 record, with the only losses being 3-0 to Oklahoma on Opening Day and game 2 of a doubleheader to Yale, 5-4 in extra innings, is largely thanks to the pitching. Auburn pitchers are holding opponents to a .197 batting average, with 21 total runs over eight games. Starters Trace Bright (1-0, 0.00 ERA, and 11 Ks in 11 IP across two appearances) and Jordan Armstrong (1-0, 0.00 ERA, and 16 Ks in 9.1 IP across two appearances) are leading the rotation. Righty Joseph Gonzalez (1-0, 3.38 ERA, and 7 Ks in 8 IP across two appearances) has had mixed results, putting up 5 scoreless innings of 3-hit ball against a potent Texas Tech lineup and then struggling with soft contact in an outing against Yale where he allowed 7 hits and 3 runs across 3 innings. Notre Dame transfer Tommy Sheehan has started two games this year as he’s been recovering from a partial Tommy John procedure (0-0, 2.25 ERA, and 2 Ks in 4 IP across two appearances), but has been temporarily removed from the starting rotation to work on mechanics and shore up his fundamentals as he continues to work the surgically-repaired arm back to game shape. In his place, Auburn started sophomore pitcher Konnor Copeland on Tuesday against Alabama State. Copeland, the Florida Panhandle Pitcher of the Year for 2021 at Pensacola (7-1, 1.74 ERA) went 2 1/3 innings, allowing 5 hits and one unearned run while notching a single strikeout across 11 batters for a no-decision.
Auburn continues its non-conference schedule Wednesday night against UAB, with the expected starter being junior Mason Barnett. Barnett, who has three appearances on the season, all in relief, has allowed only one hit and no runs. For his career, the righty has a record of 2-4 with an 4.80 ERA in 28 appearances (six starts). He has some of the best pure “stuff” on this entire pitching staff but needs to be more consistent in longer outings if he wants to work his way into a prominent role on the weekend once the team gets to SEC play.
This weekend, Auburn has four games against Rhode Island on tap, including a doubleheader on Saturday. Expected pitchers for the series are RHP Jordan Armstrong on Friday night, RHP Joseph Gonzalez and RHP Trace Bright for Saturday’s doubleheader, and possibly LHP Konner Copeland on Sunday.