Just a year ago, Burns was a freshly minted righthander who had to learn the ropes. First, he had to figure out his role, then he needed to learn what the SEC was all about. He had the perfect role model to follow in Mize, who had a stellar spring and was the top overall pick in the MLB draft last summer, but who also had a gradual rise and had to make adjustments early in his Auburn career.
Burns, a six-foot, 205-pounder, had a 2018 campaign to remember. He was outstanding in Southeastern Conference play and finished the season as a Freshman All-American. But the passing of another season has brought about new challenges. No longer does Burns have Mize leading off the weekend, ultimately taking the pressure off him every weekend.
Now, Burns is the guy everyone looks to each weekend for that perfect start to a series, and that role only has been magnified during the early part of the season with an injury to righthander Davis Daniel. Daniel should be back in the next couple of weeks, but his absence has put more of the load on Burns' back.
But just like last season, the righty hasn't flinched due to a lofty challenge. He's only gotten better.
"Just in the same way that Keegan Thompson took Casey Mize under his wings two seasons ago, Mize did that with Tanner last year, and it worked out great," Auburn coach Butch Thompson said. "He showed Tanner the ropes and was his throwing partner each day. He kind of showed him how it's done.
"And I think Tanner was thankful for that," he continued. "I think Tanner wanted to find the best way to thank Casey, so he changed his number to '32' this season. I think that's pretty cool if you ask me."
It's one thing to learn the ropes from and be Mize's cohort in crime last season on the way to a solid freshman campaign. It's another for Burns, so far this spring, to essentially dwarf the numbers Mize put up early last season. That includes Mize's no-hit performance against Northeastern. At this stage last year, Mize had a 2.13 ERA in 25 innings along with 38 strikeouts and three walks, along with a .119 OBA. So far this season? Burns has a 0.68 ERA in 26.2 innings, along with 39 strikeouts and four walks and a .124 OBA.
That's all with a year less experience, and his start to the season has even caught Mize's attention as he continues Spring Training with the Detroit Tigers.
"I thought it was really cool that he decided to do that," Mize said about Burns wearing his number this season. "That jersey and number was something I wore with pride for three years, so if he did that to kind of honor me, that's really awesome.
"Tanner is one of the best teammates I've ever had. I don't know if I've ever met a more likable person in my life. Everyone just loves him," Mize continued. "I think he loves to work and prepare almost as much as he loves to compete. His talent and work he puts in shows every time he takes the mound and it was a lot of fun to watch last year. He's even taken a step forward this year, and that's really awesome to see."
Thompson is a wizard with pitchers. The list of premier arms he's developed over the years is lengthy. So, when he says he saw something in Burns from the get-go his freshman year, you just sit back and listen.
Burns, like most freshmen, wasn't a complete product last season. But the potential was all there. The fastball played up a big way, and while the breaking ball wasn't where it needs to be, it had potential. So, Thompson and the talented righty went to work and he managed to piece together an impressive campaign that ended with All-American honors.
"Tanner was one of those freshmen that just looked like he belonged and could compete at this level," Thompson said about last season. "He had a fastball and a half. He had a half breaking ball some days, and others, it was a changeup. But he competed with his fastball.
"He went in there and competed with what he had," Thompson continued. "The fastball, I thought, played up big time, and he really hung in there as the season progressed. He has continued to develop his arsenal from last season, and I think he learned so much last year. We're really grateful, too, that Casey kind of took him under his wing."
In Burns' first start this season, he allowed a run on three hits in five innings, while also striking out seven and walking one. The next week against UCF, he paved the way to an important road series win with another strong performance, striking out seven, walking two and allowing a run on two hits in 5.2 innings. And he's been even more dominant the last two weeks, striking out an insane 15 batters on the way to a complete game shutout against Cincinnati before punching out 10 and walking just one in seven innings in his most recent start against UTSA.
"I think what he did last year kind of took some pressure off him this season," Thompson said. "He got to sit back and watch Casey kind of lead things off every weekend last year. He got to watch a game or two and then pitch to teams. Now he's the one leading us off, and I think he's having success because of what he learned from those experiences.
"I saw those numbers [Burns' numbers now vs. Mize's last year]. Casey's run last year for about the first eight weeks was about as good as anything I've ever seen," he continued. "Talk about someone trying to pick up where the other left off. Wow. It's really hard to replace the first pick of the draft, so what Tanner has done so far this season is pretty special."
Burns has taken his stuff to another level. He's still sitting in that low-to-mid 90s range with his fastball, but the evolution of his secondary offerings is evident. He's still throwing that fastball with conviction but has begun to mimic his fastball grip to throw that slider, and that has led to a sharper offering. Furthermore, he continues to make strides with the changeup.
"We went back to what's our best pitch -- which is the fastball and decided to do a breaking ball grip of the same genre as the fastball," Thompson said. "The grip is really comfortable for him and it's in close relation with that fastball group. He's sharing space with the two pitches and he can flip that breaking ball in there to get ahead in the count. It's just made him feel a lot more comfortable out there.
"His ability to share space with that breaking ball and fastball and be able to throw both pitches with a 0-0 count -- that's been big," he continued. "That's allowed him to go out there and throw and not to be so predictable."
He's also navigated the past two weekends without too much pressure. Just like he was the security blanket for Mize last season, sophomore lefthander Jack Owen has evolved into a security blanket for Burns. He was inserted into the weekend rotation after the UCF series and has been out of this world, striking out 29 and walking just two, while having yet to allow a run in 34.2 innings of work.
Owen's rise and Davis' eventual return, and the big arm of Burns gives Thompson and the Tigers a lot of confidence entering SEC play.
Burns might very well have his ups and downs in SEC play, like most premier pitchers do. But his run through the first four weeks has been remarkable.
Everyone has taken notice, including the guy for whom he wears the jersey number for.
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