If Auburn reaches the College World Series, third-year sophomore pitcher Bailey Horn can stuff a resume that’s already loaded with accomplishments.
Horn led West High School to back-to-back Class 3A state championships in 2015-16 and helped McLennan Community College make the 2017 Junior College World Series.
Now Auburn is two wins away from Omaha as it faces North Carolina in the Super Regionals beginning Saturday in Chapel Hill, N.C.
“That would be pretty awesome to do it at every stage in my career,” Horn said. “It would be a once in a lifetime experience to go to Omaha, and we realize that. That’s been our goal all year, and we’ve given our best effort and believed in each other.”
For the Tigers to reach the CWS, Horn might have to play a major role like he did last weekend.
Working to come back from Tommy John surgery, Horn had struggled to regain his pitching form most of this season.
But the Auburn coaching staff felt confident enough to choose Horn to start the third game of last weekend’s NCAA regional. The left-hander delivered his best performance of the season as he allowed two hits and threw six shutout innings as Auburn knocked off top-seeded Georgia Tech, 4-1, in Atlanta to earn a spot in the Super Regionals.
He did it the hard way, as his six innings were split by a two-hour rain delay.
Wrestling with the decision
“I went back and forth on whether he could go back out,” said Auburn pitching coach Steve Smith, who was Baylor’s head baseball coach from 1995-2015. “But he was so confident. So he threw a few more innings that were really good. He had three pitches going on Sunday and was mixing them. It was really one of those moments that I’ll not forget.”
Smith anticipates Horn starting again if the Super Regionals series against the Tar Heels goes to a third game on Monday. Nobody is more excited to see Horn pitching at a high level than MCC coach Mitch Thompson, who understands how much effort it’s taken for him to bounce back from Tommy John surgery in April 2018.
“I was fired up for him because I know what he had been through,” Thompson said. “I always tell guys that people are not going to remember what you did the first of the year, but they’ll remember the end. It’s a testament to his perseverance, work ethic and character, and Auburn was rewarded.”
Horn’s talent was already well known around Central Texas when he arrived at MCC in 2016.
During his last two seasons at West, he compiled a 26-3 record and was twice named MVP at the Class 3A state tournament after the Trojans won championships.
Thompson felt fortunate to sign Horn at MCC, and he enjoyed immediate success at the junior college level as he finished 7-0 with a 3.86 ERA as a freshman.
“Our 2017 team was loaded with tremendous athleticism,” Thompson said. “But Bailey was probably the best athlete on that team. He had pitched in big-time games in two state championships, and had played football and ran track. We were really grateful we could land him. He had command and just needed to get stronger.”
With a fastball that routinely clocked in at over 90 mph, Horn had a chance to get drafted following the 2018 season.
Pitching the 2018 season opener against Angelina College, Horn was in tremendous form as started the game with four shutout innings while striking out seven. But when he came back to pitch in the fifth, he felt severe pain in his left elbow.
“I kind of felt a sharp pain in my elbow, so I threw a little more after that and kept feeling it,” Horn said. “Mitch had to get me out of there. I needed a scan and got an MRI and they found the partial tear.”
Horn said he tried a platelet-rich plasma injection in an effort to heal the tear, but he didn’t get the results he wanted. Horn underwent Tommy John surgery in which a tendon is extracted from another part of the body to replace the arm ligament.
It was a major loss for MCC as Horn began a long road of rehabilitation.
The long road back
“It scared me to death when it happened,” Thompson said. “It was opening day and this is your ace from a World Series team, and now he’s gone. He was going to get draft attention, and it was tough for him and the program. But it’s been nice to see him come back. I’m really proud of his perseverance.”
Horn said he began throwing again last summer, but didn’t face live competition in Auburn scrimmages last fall. When he returned to game action this season, he struggled throughout most of the season out of Auburn’s bullpen.
But Smith still saw some progress, especially in an 11-6 loss to Georgia Tech on April 16. Pitching in relief, Horn’s numbers didn’t look very good as he allowed two hits, a walk and two runs in 1.1 innings.
But the radar gun told a different story.
“He was frustrated because he wanted to help us win a game,” Smith said. “But I told him you got up to 93 mph and you’re going to be fine.”
Horn showed more progress in Auburn’s SEC tournament opener against Tennessee as he allowed one hit, one walk and one run in a four-inning relief stint. Auburn rallied for a 5-3 win and Horn was the winning pitcher.
That performance led to his superb game against Georgia Tech to win the regional as his fastball, curve, slider and changeup were all working at a high level. He improved to 4-0 for the season and his ERA dropped from 7.56 to 6.10 in 31 innings.
Horn knows he’s come a long way since his Tommy John surgery 14 months ago.
“I could tell the direction I was going and where I needed to be,” Horn said. “It was just a process of trusting it. I think that was part of it, having to get through the rough times to be where I want to be. Not everything is going to be perfect. But I was confident the whole time.”
Horn is glad the Auburn coaching staff stuck with him after suffering his elbow injury. He had signed with Auburn in the fall of 2017, but at no time did Tigers coach Butch Thompson try to convince him to get out of his scholarship.
“A lot of coaches and teams might not have done the same thing,” Horn said. “Talking with Butch and Mitch and knowing the character he has, I knew he was looking out for me and trusted in me.”
Horn likes the coaching he’s received from Smith, who pitched at Baylor and in the minor leagues in the 1980s. Smith became the all-time winningest baseball coach at Baylor as he guided the Bears to three Big 12 regular season titles and their last College World Series appearance in 2005 during his 21 seasons.
“It’s pretty neat with Coach Smith being from the Waco area and the career he’s had,” Horn said. “I’m finally getting to play for him. He’s given me guidance, not just in baseball but life as well. As long as I’m here, I’m in good hands.”