Tigers With Something To Prove

Auburn players Jay Gonzalez and Slade Smith talk about the 2012 season.

Auburn, Ala.—Perhaps no player on the Auburn roster is as ready for the 2012 season as sophomore outfielder Jay Gonzalez. Coming into the program last season as one of the top signees for Coach John Pawlowski, the speedy outfielder struggled to adjust to life in the SEC and wound up playing mostly in spot duty for the Tigers as a freshman.

Following a strong summer in the Valley League where he was one of the best hitters and base stealers and as the Tigers prepare to face Missouri this weekend to open the 2012 season, Gonzalez said he's ready to get it going.

"To be honest with you words can even begin to describe how excited I am," Gonzalez said. "I'm blessed and fortunate to be given the opportunity to come out and hopefully be an impact player and do what my team asks me to do. The excitement through the entire team, we're craving this. We've been ready since the season ended last year. We feel like this is going to be a phenomenal year for us."

Playing in 34 games last season for the Tigers, Gonzalez hit just .171 with six hits in 35 at-bats. In SEC play he was just 2-10 with three strikeouts. Those are numbers Gonzalez said he hopes he's put behind him because of the way he has prepared for this season both on and off the field.

"I'm totally different now," Gonzalez said. "My maturity level is different. I now know what it feels like to play a full nine-inning game on back-to-back days. I feel like my body, mentally and physically, I'm more prepared than I've ever been."

One of the fastest players on the Auburn team along with senior Creede Simpson and fellow outfielders Bobby Andrews and Ryan Tella, Gonzalez is looking to keep his summer momentum going on the base paths this season on the Plains. A player that makes things happen, he said he's anxious to see how Auburn's speed and aggressiveness on the bases will work this year.

"Me and Bobby and Tella and Creede, all the guys that can really run, we're really looking forward to causing major chaos," Gonzalez said. "We want to be a huge headache for every team we face, turning singles into doubles, and doubles into triples, and hopefully runs out of nowhere. It was a big part of my game growing up and it's exciting."

It's not just offensively where the speed should make a difference for Auburn this year. With Gonzalez in right field, Tella in center, and Andrews in left, the Tigers will have one of the fastest outfields in the country. Because of that the defense should be a strength and it's something Gonzalez said should help them in all facets of the game.

"I feel like it's going to give us a phenomenal advantage," Gonzalez said. "Having the speed we have out there I feel like our pitchers will be way more relaxed. Personally we have a goal that no ball should touch our green unless it rolls through the dirt first. The speed is going to be huge. I think we can track down balls faster. It's going to be very exciting."

Slade Smith

While Gonzalez is looking to make an impact for the first time, for junior Slade Smith it's a different story. A key member of the pitching staff both of his first two seasons the Fort Payne native is now one of the older guys on the team. Because of that he said it has been a different preseason for him getting ready for 2012.

"It's always nice going into a season knowing what to expect," Smith said. "I have been through the ropes before and being able to lead some of the younger guys who are anxious is fun because they don't know what to expect. It's really good being one of the older guys and getting to see the younger guys grow as the season progresses."

Smith is hoping not only do the young guys progress but also his work on the mound as well. Going 2-2 last season with a 5.83 ERA in 18 appearances, Smith's best work came out of the bullpen as his ERA was 4.97 in relief and 6.37 as a starter. After a strong summer pitching in the Cape Cod League and continuing to work on his craft, Smith said he feels like he's ready to take his game to the next level.

"I've always wanted to be a starter," Smith said. "I started last year at the beginning of the season and it wasn't the outcome I would have preferred. I have gained a lot of experience from the end of last year and at the Cape. I have a lot of confidence coming in this year. I feel like I have a lot to prove as a starter and as a pitcher."

That's the mentality the Tigers have as a team after being picked last in the SEC West in the preseason poll. Facing one of the nation's toughest schedules and jumping into the fire right away with Missouri this weekend, Smith said that while they're not concerned with that you can't help but use it as motivation to succeed.

"It's definitely motivation," Smith said. "We try not to listen too much to the media and what they say about us. At the same time it also gives us something to prove. I think we're going to surprise a lot of people this year."

Game times for the weekend series are 3 p.m. on both Friday and Saturday and 1 p.m. on Sunday.

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