Matt Scheffler remembers that it’s more like a marathon, not a sprint.
But that doesn’t mean he and his teammates aren’t excited to finally put one foot in front of the other.
Auburn baseball opens the 2020 season tonight at 5 p.m. against Illinois-Chicago — beginning the long road back to Omaha with a four-game weekend series at Plainsman Park.
For the Tigers, there’s a balancing act in play for them trying to carry on the momentum from last year’s epic ride to the College World Series while also putting in the early work to build what’s in so many ways a new team in what’s certainly an all-new season.
Auburn returns all but two position players from last year’s team, but even then Scheffler, the senior catcher, knows he’ll be looking across the plate at a new-look infield this weekend, with a few newcomers entering the fold but many of the returning pieces even shuffling around.
In short, it’s opening day. And there’s not much like opening day.
“It’s our first competition against someone other than ourselves since the fall,” Scheffler said Thursday as the team looked ahead to the season and the series. “Everybody is going to be excited. Adrenaline is going to be high.
“I think this will be a good series for all of the young players to get all of those excited juices out and calm down — settle into their role and start this long journey.”
After tonight’s game, the weekend series continues with a doubleheader Saturday starting at 11 a.m., then concludes with a Sunday game starting at 11 a.m. at Plainsman Park.
“These four games will give us a huge gauge on where we’re going and trying to build a new identity of an entire new ball club,” Auburn head coach Butch Thompson said.
In the field, Thompson’s team is pretty well set in the outfield and behind the plate with Scheffler. The Tigers are filling holes at third base and shortstop. Sophomore Ryan Bliss is expected to start tonight’s game at short, moving over from second base where he started every game last season. This weekend, last year’s first baseman Rankin Woley could be seen playing over at third base, while last year’s designated hitter Conor Davis could go to first base.
Auburn is replacing star shortstop Will Holland and last year’s RBI leader at third base Edouard Julien at those two positions.
“Them moving around in the infield, there’s really no difference for them,” said Scheffler on those returners, and JUCO transfer infielder Garrett Farquhar who figures to see some playing time this weekend. “(Head coach Butch Thompson) has talked about it all fall and early spring: Just do whatever you can to make the team better.
“If it’s moving a position or moving across the infield, they’re willing to do that.”
Junior ace pitcher Tanner Burns is set to start on the mound tonight, in Auburn’s first game with team legend Tim Hudson back with the program as pitching coach.
“I try to pick his brain as much as I can,” Burns said of Hudson. “He’s always got something. I’m always trying to learn something. He’s fun to be around. He’s got some good humor, but you also know, when it’s baseball, he’s serious. It’s been fun. We’ve all been fortunate, the pitching staff has, since January.”