Without SEC Player of the Year Hunter Morris, fellow sluggers Brian Fletcher and Trent Mummey, as well as Austin Hubbard to shut the door, Coach John Pawlowski's team will depend on pitching, defense and timely hitting this season as they hope to continue the run of success on the diamond.
A change in bats for college baseball should only help Auburn in those departments this season as less power from the aluminum bats is likely to significantly reduce the number of home runs and total runs in games this season. One of the players who hopes to benefit the most not only from the change in bats but also from being healthy for the first time in three years is junior Cory Luckie.
Pitching very well as a true freshman in 2008 when he was 4-4 with a 4.38 ERA in 14 starts, Luckie went down with an arm injury in Tuscaloosa that season and went through Tommy John surgery later that year. A surgery that requires a full year to get back into any kind of pitching form, Luckie sat out the entire 2009 season before returning to the mound last spring for the Tigers.
Finishing with a record of 6-4, Luckie had an ERA of just 5.91 as the continued to feel the effects of his surgery even though he was over a year removed. Struggling with his consistency was the toughest part for a pitcher that has always relied on his pinpoint control and Luckie said that's what he's looking to regain in 2011.
"A lot of people bring up the velocity standpoint," Luckie said. "I'm still trying to find it. That command is the thing that comes back last. I feel like right now I'm starting to feel back to normal, back to my freshman year, to be able to put it here and put it there and be able to throw any pitch anywhere no matter the count. I'm starting to finally feel like myself.
"I'm sure a lot of guys that have gone through Tommy John have a harder time coming back," he added. "Maybe because they are too worried about their velocity. As for me all I needed back was my touch. I didn't care how hard I threw and if I threw harder or slower. The one thing is you may not have your command, but you know how to pitch. When you get those two back in sync you're ready to go. I feel like I'm getting there."
With so many key players gone off last year's team some may have already written off Auburn's chances to be as successful this season as the Tigers were in 2010, but don't count Luckie in that group. With key players back at nearly every position and a pitching staff that should be improved, Luckie said Auburn has a lot of things going for it but the most important might be leadership.
"Now for us it's not so much baseball it's about being good people for the young guys to come to," Luckie said. "I really feel like since Coach Pawlowski has been here our culture has changed and the role of the older guys has changed. You're really seeing not one, two or three guys on the team that are leaders, you're seeing six, seven or eight guys that everyone can say is a leader. I think that's really our main role right now is to be an older guy somebody can look up to."
Saying the Tigers are still growing as a team, something that has been part of the process since Pawlowski arrived on campus, Luckie said that never giving up and playing until the last out is something they have grown to live by at Auburn.
"Last year one of the things we had going for us is that we had really good chemistry," Luckie said. "When we were in the eighth inning down four runs you didn't see us in the dugout freaking out. We were still the same people in the dugout we were in the first inning. I think that's one thing we've got to convey to the young guys is that we've got to play our own way and never get away from that. That's something we did really well last year."
Coach John Pawlowski
If that recipe for success sounds familiar it should because it's the same thing the Auburn football team did this season on the way to the BCS National Championship. Never giving in, coach Gene Chizik's club made sure to finish strong and Luckie said Pawlowski has made sure to remind the team of just that feat.
"Coach Pawlowski has made an example of them a couple of times," Luckie said. "It doesn't really matter what goes on in the first half of a game, what matters is the second half. That's one thing we had last year is that we played early in games but we weren't going to lay down in the late innings."
With the season opener coming up next Friday (Feb. 18th) against Arkansas State at Plainsman Park, Auburn has very little time to work out the kinks and get into top form. That's because one day later the Tigers face Top 25 opponent Virginia with UAB to follow on Sunday. Getting the season started with a bang is something Luckie said this team is thankful for because they're excited to see how things play out.
"We're ready to go," Luckie said. "We're tired of getting beat up by the hitters we've been facing for four years. We're ready to play. We're so ready for these younger guys to get out there and get a taste of what it's like to play. We're excited because it's the same team yet it's going to be so much different because of the guys we have. We're ready to show people what we can do."