Baseball Tigers Hit The Practice Field

Auburn coach John Pawlowski talks about the opening of the 2011 season with the team's first practice.

Auburn, Ala.--Coming off a season that saw the Auburn Tigers win the SEC Western Division and host a NCAA Regional at Plainsman Park, coach John Pawlowski and his staff have some major holes to fill off a club that finished 43-21 overall and 20-10 in SEC play in 2010.

That starts officially on Friday as the team gets back to work on the practice field as it prepares for opening day on Feb. 18 against Arkansas State at home. Despite losing four position players and eight pitchers off last season's team, Pawlowski said there is plenty of excitement surrounding his club heading into the new year.

"It's an exciting time right now," Pawlowski said. "It's the opening day of practice and the weather warmed up for us. The guys have been working extremely hard with their individual work and in the weight room and the classroom. Spring is in the air. We lost a number of very talented players and many of them had the opportunity to move on. Other guys have worked extremely hard to put themselves in a position to have an opportunity to play. Now the time has come for them to step up and take an active role in the success of our program."

Having a veteran lineup is always important and Auburn will be able to field a quality starting nine even without SEC Player of the Year Hunter Morris, All-SEC selections Trent Mummey and Brian Fletcher, and dependable catcher Ryan Jenkins. Losing 69 home runs and 243 RBI from that group alone, Auburn will need to find some production in 2011 but there are plenty of options to choose from.

The first is senior first baseman Kevin Patterson. The DH on the All-SEC team last year, Patterson hit .315 with 16 home runs in limited duty for the Tigers. He'll have a chance to play much more this season with Morris gone from first base. Also providing some punch should be senior catcher Tony Caldwell. Playing outfield and also some catcher in 2010 he hit .349 with 10 home runs and 41 RBI.

Kevin Patterson

It's not just power that leads the way in baseball and especially this season in the college game as the bats have been deadened to give them less of a springboard effect. That will make contact and small ball more of a necessity for teams across the country this season and should fit in well with Auburn's returning talent.

Despite hitting eight home runs third baseman Dan Gamache is more of a line drive hitter. He hit .365 as a sophomore with 37 RBI and is an important part of the puzzle for Auburn this season. Add in senior utility man Justin Bryant (.323), second baseman Justin Hargett (.316), outfielder Justin Fradejas (.358), and infielder Wes Gilmer (.341) along with junior infielder Casey McElroy (.325) and outfielder Creede Simpson (.308) and you have depth and experience available for the Tigers.

Among the newcomers to keep an eye on for Auburn in the field are freshmen infielders Tyler Dial and Zach Alvord as well as outfielders Jay Gonzalez, Cullen Wacker and Brooks Beisner.

Pawlowski said he's anxious to see how things mesh in the field with so many guys vying for a position and playing time in 2011.

"I think the experience factor is going to help us, I really do," Pawlowski said. "A lot of the guys that will be out there have been through the battles of the SEC and the schedule that we have. We do have 17 new faces in the lineup but in the beginning of the season we won't have to rely so much on them. We'll have some veteran guys at every position. Hopefully that will help us."

On the mound Auburn will have even a more difficult time replacing what it lost from 2010 as eight pitchers are gone from last year's team including starters Grant Dayton and Cole Nelson as well as closer Austin Hubbard. Also no longer with the team are Dexter Price and Garrett Bush who transferred to smaller schools to continue their careers.

The good news is that six-game winner Cory Luckie is back for his junior year along with four-game winners Bradley Hendrix and Slade Smith as well as relievers Sean Ray and Zach Blatt. Also in the mix is junior Jon Luke Jacobs after injuries hampered him as a sophomore.

Coming back from Tommy John surgery, Luckie responded with a solid 6-4 record and an ERA of 5.91 while Smith worked his way into the rotation during the year. A reliever much of his career, Hendrix could work into the rotation this season with several others trying to do the same including do-everything utility man Bryant. Newcomers such as Andrew Morris (RHP), Derek Varnadore (RHP), Will Kendall (LHP), Dillon Ortman (RHP), Ethan Wallen (LHP) and Will Irvin (RHP) are also names to watch out for this season for Auburn.

"It's a puzzle that we're trying to put together," Pawlowski said. "Grant Dayton did a great job for us last year and Austin Hubbard was a tremendous closer for us. Two real big spots that we're going to have to fill. Slade Smith is a guy that has continued to improve and did a great job for us last year as a freshman. Cory Luckie, I think is better. I think his arm has come back stronger now. Those two guys and Jon Luke Jacobs and Andrew Morris, Bradley Hendrix and Will Irvin are several guys fighting for that rotation spot."

Auburn opens the season with a tournament at Plainsman Park featuring Arkansas State, Virginia and UAB. It's just the beginning of a very good stretch for Pawlowski's team as it prepares for the rigors of SEC play. He said that's the way he likes it and it will definitely test this team well.

"I told these guys it's going to be here before we know it," Pawlowski said. "I like our schedule. It's a challenging schedule. The tournament has three quality teams. Virginia is probably in the Top 10 or Top 15. You have Memphis mid-week and Arizona State coming in here. We go to College of Charleston and they are number 20 in one poll.

"It's challenging but that's the way we like it. We have to find out where we are in preparation for the SEC. Any sport in this league is a grind so we have to be ready to go."


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