Sonny DiChiara will be a popular guy in Omaha this week, and not just because of the “Thicc King’s” big swing.
The SEC Co-Player of the Year will surely be a fan darling in the College World Series, but he may also be a social butterfly of sorts when Auburn’s on defense and he’s standing at first base, given the Tigers’ familiarity with half of the teams in the eight-team field.
“Everybody in the league, when they come to Sonny at first base, they got to stop and have a conversation,” Auburn coach Butch Thompson said. “Half the time, it’s like, ‘Sonny, pay attention! We got a game going on here.’”
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That familiarity is something Auburn will try to leverage into success in this year’s College World Series. Of the eight teams to make it to Omaha this season, four come from the SEC West — Auburn, Ole Miss (the Tigers’ opening opponent on Saturday), Arkansas and Texas A&M. It’s the third time since 2015 that half the CWS field has been comprised of SEC teams. The Tigers faced all three of this year’s other SEC representatives during the regular season, and they also opened the 2022 campaign against one of the four remaining CWS teams: Oklahoma.
Auburn went a combined 4-6 in 10 games against those four opponents. The Tigers dropped their season opener against the Sooner, 3-0, at Arlington, Texas, nearly four months ago. They lost two of three to the then-No. 1 Rebels to open SEC play at Plainsman Park, followed it up by winning two of three on the road against the Aggies the following weekend and went 1-2 during a weekend series against the then-No. 3 Razorbacks on the Plains last month.
Though the results were mixed, those teams aren’t unknowns to Auburn as it prepares for its second CWS appearance in the last three postseasons. Both Ole Miss and Arkansas are on Auburn’s side of the bracket during the double-elimination portion of the tournament, while Stanford also joins them on that half of the field. The Tigers open with the Rebels on Saturday at 6 pm and will then face either Arkansas or Stanford on Monday at Charles Schwab Stadium.
“We’re probably dusting off our Ole Miss stuff,” Thompson said. “Then if you win or lose, there’s a possibility — we’ll probably spend more time the next couple of days at Stanford because we know the least about that program.”
First up, though, is an Ole Miss team that entered the season with high hopes before overcoming a turbulent midseason stretch to make a run through the postseason. The Rebels (37-22) won the Miami Regional and then knocked off nationally seeded Southern Miss in last weekend’s Super Regional to return to Omaha for the first time since 2014.
When Auburn and Ole Miss last met back in March at the start of SEC play, the Rebels were ranked No. 1 in the nation and outscored the Tigers, 33-27, during a three-game series at Plainsman Park. Right-handed pitcher Dylan DeLucia (6-2, 4.35 ERA) — who Thompson expects Ole Miss to start Saturday — earned the win in the series opener after tossing 3 1/3 innings of relief, striking out five and allowing two runs (one earned) on six hits and no walks.
“(DeLucia) has been amazing and has been a catalyst to help them get in position,” Thompson said. “Ole Miss is not the same as when we played them, and the Auburn Tigers are not the same as when we played them…. I’m thankful we get to play Ole Miss, a familiar opponent. When they were no. 1 in the country and they came here, I told everybody they were lights out. That wasn’t me trying to cover tracks from losing two out of three; that was me saying I believe those guys are a special ballclub.”
Whether Auburn’s familiarity with the majority of the College World Series field can be used to the Tigers’ advantage remains to be seen. Thompson joked that he’d have a better idea about that answer come 9 pm Saturday — once Auburn’s opener against Ole Miss is complete — but there’s little doubt that the Tigers’ prior experience against what has proven to be top-tier competition at least has prepared them for the challenge that awaits them in Omaha.
“The SEC, in general, is the best amateur baseball in the world, I think,” senior Brody Moore said. “Those four teams and the SEC West and the league we play in has prepared us for this stage. I don’t think the competition gets more. I think it’s about even. We’re prepared for this moment.”
Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.