New Look Tigers Open Practice For 2012 Season

Auburn hits the practice field on Friday to begin preparations for the 2012 baseball season.

Auburn, Ala.—With the Auburn baseball Tigers having their first full squad preseason practice on Friday, Coach John Pawlowski and his staff will be looking at a lot of new faces in the field and at the plate as they hope to get back to the NCAA Tournament in 2012.

With Creede Simpson back as the only full-time starter in the field, the Tigers will have to rely on a wealth of young but talented players to get the job done.

With players such as Hunter Morris, Brian Fletcher, Trent Mummey and Kevin Patterson long gone and the NCAA's regulations on bats making it tougher and tougher to play the power game, Auburn will have a much different look, not only in name, but also style this season at the plate.

Relying on speed along with hitting line drives and hard ground balls, hitting coach Link Jarrett says offensively things are going to look much different this season for the Tigers.

"The home run has drastically been reduced in the college game," Jarrett tells Inside the Auburn Tigers. "I guess you know in years past, 100 home runs was a good benchmark for an outstanding power-hitting team. That's probably 50 now--50 or 60 is outstanding. There are teams that hit in the teens and 20s--I mean great baseball teams.

"You have to emphasize the short game, running the bases, trying to recruit guys that can play that game and that can really run. When you have those types of players on the field, you would hope that defensively it makes you a more athletic and a cleaner, tougher defensive team.

"I think you have to shift your focus into trying to build your team around that," Garrett says. "I think we've done that. We've got four or five guys that look to get a lot of good playing time who can really run, who are base-stealing guys capable of bunting, and I think the rest of our lineup is solid, tough outs.

"I think it's a good recipe and I think it's a good recipe you have to have if day-in, day-out. You're going to have a difficult team to pitch to and defend. You've got to be able to put pressure on teams, knowing that as a defensive team, if you are our opponent, that our guys can run and they can bunt.

"Every ball that you have to handle defensively, whether you're playing the infield, playing the outfield, catching or pitching, it changes your mindset a little bit. I think the more we can create mistakes by the opponent, the better chance you have of having those big innings where you score three or more runs."

Hitting .254 last season with three home runs and 17 RBI, Simpson and fellow senior Cullen Wacker are the only returning players with at least 100 at-bats last season. One of Auburn's most versatile players, Simpson has played two seasons in the outfield, but could play some infield this season to allow speedsters Bobby Andrews (.396, 6 stolen bases), Jay Gonzalez (.171) and Ryan Tella to take over.

Creede Simpson puts down a bunt for the Tigers.

That could be important for Auburn because Simpson's three home runs and single home runs by Wacker and sophomore infielder Zach Alvord comprise the entire returning total for the Tigers from last year--five. That means a different style of offense and using speed and aggressiveness on the base paths to get the job done.

"They are athletic guys, guys that understand their role," Jarrett says. "One of our new players from California, Ryan Tella, he was the West Coast, California, Oregon and Washington Junior College Player of the Year. His pedigree coming in here, and we got him through the draft and were able to get him to campus, is very high. He gives us another option.

"We've got some good left-handed bats, we've got some good right-handed bats, but it is dependent on who ends up playing in the outfield and how we use it. We have also got our DH spot, which obviously helps us get another bat in there in some capacity. That outfield is as fast as any outfield I've coached, anywhere I've been.

"From a pitching perspective, those guys being able to go run those balls down and knowing that there aren't a lot of balls that leave the park, the more ground you can cover in every outfield spot the better off you're going to be. That's going to be exciting and I think it's really going to give our pitchers a lot of confidence and a big boost when somebody rifles one in the gap every once in a while. When one of our guys can run it down and turn a double or a triple into an out, that's momentum-changing defense."

Bobby Andrews is one of the players expected to play a role in the outfield for the Tigers.

On the infield Jarrett and the Tigers must replace all four starters and veterans Patterson, Justin Hargett, Casey McElroy and Dan Gamache. While Alvord (.197, I HR, 7 RBI) is likely to play one of the spots on the left side of the infield and six-foot-six junior college transfer Garrett Cooper is the favorite to win the job at first base over Justin Bryant and Patrick Savage, Jarrett says the rest of the infield spots are definitely up for grabs.

"You know when you start talking about some of the middle infielders, I feel like we've got a handful of guys that can go out there and play and maybe we can upgrade our athleticism," Jarrett says. "We've had guys that really handled the ball and did a fantastic job.

"You look at Casey and Hargett and some of the guys who were out there. They made plays and they handled the ball well. Some of the guys we have maybe have more range, maybe have more arm, maybe have more athleticism, so that's exciting. That is really what you want up the middle--to be strong and athletic and be consistent."

Zach Alvord is ready to expand his playing time as a sophomore

Also in the mix for playing time on the infield are freshman Tanner Cimo (5-7, 160), sophomore transfer Dan Glevenyak (6-1, 190), freshman Kent Rollins (6-0, 175), junior Mitchell Self (5-10, 152), and freshman Jarred Smith (6-0, 187). Coming back from Tommy John surgery, fifth-year senior Bryant (5-11, 196) is also capable of playing any of the infield spots as well.

Behind the plate the Tigers must replace the steady Tony Caldwell after his strong 2011 season. Starting 54 games he hit .332 with seven home runs and 44 RBI.

One of 13 semi-finalists for the Johnny Bench Award as the nation's top collegiate catcher, he threw out 23 of 49 (47 percent) base stealers and picked a man off first this season. His 23 caught stealing by led the SEC and at the end of the regular season was the second-most of the 13 Bench Award semi-finalists.

The job of replacing Caldwell will go to one of a group of players led by senior Caleb Bowen (5-10, 188) and sophomore Blake Austin (5-11, 216). With junior transfer Kody Ortman (6-3, 185) and true freshman J.D. Crowe (5-11, 187) also capable of providing some depth Jarrett said Auburn will be in good shape behind the plate.

"I think we're going to have some of the best catching in the country; they can all receive, they can all block, you know you've got a couple of them that have just got a phenomenal arm strength and quickness," Jarrett says.

"Kody is a little more of an offensive type catcher, receiving, blocking outstanding and he's coming along with his throwing. You know we've got some physical guys. They're all strong. Blake and Kody are big, big guys. Bo (Bowen) is a very athletic, flexible type catcher who can really just catch and throw so our catching position is just deep.

"With another freshman, J.D. Crowe, we've got four guys who can catch and I'll put that up against anybody we'll face in terms of that position as a whole," the coach adds.

Preparing to face one of the nation's toughest schedules with seven of the top 11 teams and eight of the Top 25 in the country according to Baseball America on the slate, Jarrett says it's going to take everything the offense can muster to get the Tigers to where they want to be at the end of the year.

Opening the season on Feb. 17 against Missouri at home, he says he's looking for effort and determination every single day from the offense and if that happens it could be a good year for Auburn.

"We're going to have to put the ball in play consistently," Jarrett says. "There are going to be nights when there are some thoroughbreds out there we're facing. It's going to have to be absolutely miserable for teams to come in here and play us.

"We're really going to have to cherish the fact that we're going to slap it around. We're going to put it in play. We're going to bunt. We're going to read dirt balls and we're going to advance. We're going to score on balls in the gap. We're going to have the ability to steal third and steal second and squeeze and safety with everybody in our lineup.

"I think when you walk into that as an opponent, walk into that setting, you know that those nine innings are going to be very, very challenging on all phases. You're not going to just carve people up offensively, you're going to have to handle the ball to get outs and handle the ball that has been hit by athletic guys that can run and play.

"That's what it's about, and that's what it's going to take for us to be successful," the coach adds. "It is going to have to be that way day-in and day-out.

"There are going to be some big innings that we have. Most of your big innings, whether it is because of power or not, occur when you force the other team to make mistakes. When you look at each inning, even last year, I think it was 33 of the 37 innings that we scored three or more runs we had one of those in there. Then you surround that with a couple of hits, an extra base hit and that's how you score.

"More so than ever, if you want to be good in college baseball, that's what you have to do," Jarrett says. "You have to force other teams to make mistakes and be disciplined. You have to put the ball in play, force the other team to make some errors and make some mistakes and pressure and feed off of that."

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