OMAHA, Nebraska — Perhaps the scariest thing for opponents about Sonny DiChiara, once you get past the disarming smile, engaging personality and the long home runs he has launched during his first season at Auburn, is that this otherwise lovable Tiger already is better than even his ever-growing legion of greatest admirers may think.
So says his coach, Butch Thompson, on the eve of DiChiara’s debut in the Men’s College World Series. Auburn will open play in the 2022 MCWS Saturday at 7 p.m. ET vs. SEC foe Ole Miss at Charles Schwab Field Omaha in a game that will be televised on ESPN2.
“If you look at it from an analytical standpoint,” said Thompson, “he may have more impact on any team than any other player in college baseball.”
Let Thompson explain how it goes beyond the usual numbers, which are impressive enough. The 6-foot-1, 263-pound DiChiara, named the Co-SEC Player of the Year along with LSU’s Dylan Crews, enters Saturday night’s contest batting .392 with 22 home runs and 59 runs batted in after starting all 58 games for Auburn to date.
But Thompson insists that you have to look even closer, starting with the 68 walks the patient DiChiara has drawn in 271 plate appearances. DiChiara also has reached base nine times this season after being hit by a pitch, leaving him with 194 official at-bats and an eye-popping .560 on-base percentage.
“When you look at his RBIs, and you look at his home runs — there’s some guys in college baseball that had more,” Thompson said. “When you take those 70 at-bats out of there, because most of those 70 are (opposing teams) not wanting to fool with him, that changes things. His numbers could have been astronomical, but they’ve elected not to pitch to him a bunch.”
DiChiara transferred to Auburn from little-known Samford in the Southern Conference, where he posted good numbers but nothing like what he has put up this season. Yet he, his teammates and his coach insist that they have not been surprised by his success in the SEC that has seemed so stunning to outsiders.
They all are quick to add that with Sonny D, it is more than about analytics and numbers anyway. He is, simply, a positive personality force to be reckoned with on a daily basis.
“I played against Sonny for a long time when he was at Samford. And every time it was, don’t pitch to this guy, don’t let him beat you,” Auburn outfielder Kason Howell said. “When he came to Auburn, I was not surprised at how well he did fit in. I’d heard nothing but good things about him from everybody who knew him.
“And so him just coming in and just being a great locker room presence, everybody loves him. Obviously the fan base loves him. And his professionalism, the way he goes about every day in practice and the way he goes about his business is just, it’s infectious, and it’s really just helped our team become a lot stronger.”
Tigers pitcher Carson Skipper said he grew up playing baseball with and against DiChiara for years, so he knew him well prior to DiChiara’s arrival in Auburn.
“Yeah, 6 years old all the way through high school. And we played against each other while he was at Stanford,” Skipper said. “I’ve been able to see him grow throughout his whole life, how good of a hitter he really is. And for him to come here and be able to do his thing, it’s been amazing to see.”
DiChiara typically shrugs off all the high praise with a quick smile dripping of admirable humility, which only seems to make folks love him more.
“When I showed up Day One and saw these guys and met everybody, and saw just how hard they worked, it infected me,” he said. “I just really put my nose down and went to work. I wanted to win so bad with these guys.”
They’ve won enough together to be one of the last eight teams standing in college baseball this year, taking a 42-20 overall record into Saturday’s game against Ole Miss.
Thompson insists he has not been surprised by the way DiChiara has shredded the SEC pitching that obviously is superior to what DiChiara faced from Southern Conference foes while at Samford. He said the four-umpire system used by the SEC, coupled with the advent of the TrackMan baseball technology that tracks balls and strikes and is studied by umpire, coaches and players alike, have helped make DiChiara an even better hitter than he was upon arrival at Auburn.
Coupled with the fact that DiChiara actually was expected to carry his team less, and not more, at Auburn than he did at Samford also has helped him, Thompson said.
“He had to carry something (at Samford),” Thompson said. “He doesn’t have to carry as much for us. And I think it’s a little better strike zone where that slider rolls off, three or four balls off the plate, he can get a ball out of it now because so much is on TV. So much is evaluated with our SEC umpires, et cetera.
“But in the past, when that ball is called (a strike) two or three balls off the plate consistently, he felt like he had to go for it. And nobody’s good at hitting a pitch a foot outside or a foot above or foot in, two balls in. I think it’s allowed him to get to his truest, smallest strike zone of his career.”
Regardless of how he fares in this College World Series, everyone who has been around Sonny D this season at Auburn expects to see the upbeat DiChiara continuing to smile his way through it.
“He’s had us from hello,” Thompson said. “And I’m so thankful that a player like him, with that much charisma and that much game, gets an opportunity to play in a setting like this.”