From Little League World Series to Omaha, Game 1 nod means ‘everything’ to Auburn’s Joseph Gonzalez

Walking through the tunnel and onto Charles Schwab Field for the first time Thursday afternoon, Joseph Gonzalez had a familiar feeling.

It was akin to the one he experienced eight years ago, in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania — the first time the right-hander experienced the bright lights of one of the sport’s biggest stages: the Little League World Series. Gonzalez, then 12 years old, was part of the Caribbean team out of Humacao, Puerto Rico, in the 2014 LLWS and still considers it “one of the great experiences” of his life.

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“As a kid, that is every kid’s dream that plays baseball,” Gonzalez said. “For me to get to play there and seeing that field and all the people… I felt like I was in the MLB as a kid.”

Now the sophomore is set to take the mound on an even grander stage: the College World Series. Gonzalez will start for Auburn (42-20) against Ole Miss (37-22) when the two teams open play in Omaha, Nebraska, on Saturday at 6 pm (ESPN2).

Gonzalez is confident he will fare better in his CWS debut than he did in his pitching appearance in the Little League World Series eight years ago. That year, Gonzalez pitched for Puerto Rico in an 8-5 second-round loss to South Korea—which went on to claim the LLWS crown. Gonzalez tossed 1 1/3 innings in their meeting, allowing three runs on six hits while striking out three and walking none.

“They were tough,” Gonzalez said, “but the experience was awesome.”

Gonzalez (7-3, 2.95 ERA) has been nails for Auburn this season, emerging as the go-to arm of the Tigers’ starting rotation while leading the staff with six quality starts in 14 outings (13 starts). He has given up just 24 earned runs and 14 walks in 73 1/3 innings of work, posting a 1.23 WHIP on the season.

The sophomore posted four consecutive quality starts during SEC play this season, becoming the first Auburn pitcher to accomplish that feat since eventual No. 1 pick Casey Mize in 2018. He also became the first Auburn pitcher since Keegan Thompson in 2015 to win four straight starts in SEC play, and his complete game against Vanderbilt in April was the Tigers’ first since 2018.

“Arguably, at the end of the day, he’s probably our best starter,” Auburn coach Butch Thompson said. “(He) has gone the longest per start, and we’re excited to let Joseph get an opportunity to start us off here.”

Gonzalez is coming off two solid postseason outings in the Regional and Super Regional rounds. He tossed six innings and gave up three runs on four hits against Florida State to open the postseason while making the All-Regional Tournament team, and he followed it up with five strong innings against Oregon State last weekend, when he took the loss in Game 2 but gave up just two earned runs while striking out five and issuing no walks.

Now he’s getting the nod in the Tigers’ opener in Omaha.

“Man, it’s awesome,” he said. “…Having the ball for the first game as a sophomore means everything for me. The Rebels, man, I just got to keep doing my thing that I’ve been doing through the whole year and, man, try to win this game.”

While Auburn is plenty familiar with the Ole Miss team it will face Saturday, the Rebels don’t have much familiarity with Gonzalez’s arm. He did not pitch against Ole Miss during the teams’ SEC-opening series in March, and his only prior experience against the SEC West foe was one inning of relief work last season—in just Gonzalez’s seventh career appearance as a freshman.

“I feel like it’s going to be good for me that they haven’t seen me yet,” Gonzalez said. “Hopefully, that works.”

Auburn is banking on it, as the program seeks its first win in a College World Series game since 1967—a drought that spans the Tigers’ last four CWS appearances.

“I feel good about it,” Gonzalez said. “I know I can do it. I’ve been doing good all season, and I really think I’m going to do a great job.”

Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.

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