Auburn, Ala.--While Auburn’s pitching staff has plenty of new faces that will have to come through for the Tigers to be successful in 2016, Coach Butch Thompson and his staff have plenty of veterans to lean on in the field led by center fielder Anfernee Grier.
Expected to bat leadoff for the Tigers when they open the season, Grier is looking to build on a fantastic sophomore season that saw him hit a team-high .323 with 82 hits. Now bigger and stronger and more confident after a summer playing for Team USA, Grier said he’s excited about this team and getting the season underway.
“I’m just ready to get back on the field,” Grier said. “It has been a long time since we’ve been on the field together, especially with the new coaches. I’m just ready to get back out there and compete with the team.
“I feel more prepared,” he added. “Especially going through a full season last year, I got a chance to prepare my body coming into the year. I’m trying to help out the young guys as much as I can so they won’t be so nervous on Friday. I think I’m more prepared this year than anything.”
The good news for Auburn is that when the Tigers take the field on Friday at 3 p.m. against Sacramento State in the season opener there won’t be a lot of young guys that will be counted on in terms of position players with a load of experience back across the board. Joined in the outfield by junior Daniel Robert, who has made the transition from first base to right field in the last few weeks, Grier is definitely one of the leaders of the offense and the captain of the outfield. In left field the Tigers will go with junior college transfer Josh Palacios to start, but there are a lot of other possibilities to choose from.
A key defender that is capable of doing damage at the plate, senior Jackson Burgreen returns to provide depth in the outfield as does fellow senior Bo Decker and junior J.J. Shaffer and all three had very productive preseason practices.
Because of the way that group stepped up, it allowed the coaches to take a look at senior Jordan Ebert back in the infield, the place he started his career at Auburn. Seeing time at second base as well as at third, Ebert could be the opening day second baseman for the Tigers with fellow senior Melvin Gray also likely in the mix at the position.
Batting .304 with 23 RBI in just 48 games, Gray has a knack for making the timely play and should be a key component for Auburn’s offense this year. At first base will be junior college transfer Niko Buentello. The 6-4, 242 left-handed hitter is a big-time power threat at the plate after hitting .394 with 10 home runs and 66 RBI as a sophomore at Grayson (Tex.) College.
With shortstop Cody Nulph and third baseman Damon Haecker returning after hitting .258 and .271 respectively a year ago and Blake Logan behind the plate along reserve catcher Ben Craft and a pair of talented freshmen, Auburn has plenty of options to work with at the plate and that has Grier as well as his coach ready to see what the future holds for this group of Tigers.
Following a whirlwind 100 days of working with this team and getting ready for life in the SEC, Thompson said now it's time to play ball and he can't wait.
"Our guys have worked hard and done everything we asked them to do," Thompson said. "They deserve this moment and they're going to get the beautiful weather this weekend. It will be a great starting point to see where we're at. It's time to compete against another team besides ourself."
Game times for the weekend series are 3 p.m. on Friday and 1 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday.