If pitching is the key to success, the Tigers have a chance to field a strong squad in 2004.
With nine pitchers returning off last season's 42-21 team that was the number four national seed in the NCAA Tournament, Coach Steve Renfroe has both depth and experience to work with this year. Throw in several talented newcomers and you get a staff that has the potential to be one of the top groups in the Southeastern Conference.
What gives Auburn's pitching a chance to be highly successful in 2004 is the return of talented closer Steven Register. A preseason All-American and a member of the United States Pan-American team last summer, the junior is coming off a season when he had 16 saves and an ERA of just 2.94 in 52 innings pitched. Renfroe says having Register back makes the Tigers stronger because of both his ability and confidence.
"Stevie is just a guy who really relishes that role," Renfroe says. "Teams feed off that. He wants the ball and he's a great competitor. Guys know that and they're excited when they get to the park. You can feel it in the middle innings with a team. It's like when Gregg Olson was here. Teams say, ‘Come on, we just have to get a few runs and we're okay.' That's what good about it. He just adds that mental toughness to the whole game."
Steven Register had an impressive summer playing for Team USA.
To get to Register, Auburn must have more consistent starting pitching than they did last season. Expected to earn the starting nods this season are senior Colby Paxton, junior Arnold Hughey and true freshman Mike Felix. A power pitcher who decided to return for his senior year instead of jumping to the professional ranks, Paxton says that he likes what he's seen out of his fellow pitchers this spring and believes they are headed for good things.
"The reason I came back is to take on the challenge of being a leader," Paxton says. "It's been very encouraging to come back and see the things that are developing and seeing some of the younger guys step up. It has been fun to watch.
"We have old guys and young guys and they're not all the same," Paxton adds. "We have some left-handers dropping down, we have some right-handers dropping down, we have some guys coming over the top and everything in between. It's given us something we haven't had. We haven't had the luxury in the past."
Last season Paxton was 7-3 with an ERA of 3.57 in 85 2/3 innings while Hughey led the team in innings pitched with 102. He was 6-6 with an earned run average of 4.15 and has added a more effective change-up for his use in 2004. A left-hander, Hughey will be joined by another lefty this season in Felix.
One of the top pitchers in the South last season coming out of Rutherford High in Panama City, Felix is a player who could help the Tigers not only on the mound, but in the field and at the plate.
"He's an exceptional athlete and baseball player," Renfroe says of Felix. "He could play first base. He could be a guy you bring in for defense late, he's that good of a first baseman. He will hit for you. One day he'll probably hit in the front-middle of the lineup. He's just got that kind of ability.
"On the mound he's like Steven Register in his attitude. He's really fearless. It's kind of a ‘here, hit it.' He's got good enough stuff and he's left-handed. He will not be afraid. He can field his position and hold runners. He has that mound presence. The game just seems to be going fast when he's standing there and you like to have that in a guy."
Colby Paxton looks to be ready to have a strong performance this season.
Coming out of the bullpen again this season will be senior Cory Dueitt. Taking over the role of departed senior Levale Speigner, Dueitt is looking to improve on his already solid numbers from last season when he was 6-0 with a 3.23 ERA. Joining him in the set-up role will be sophomore Chris Dennis. Last season Dennis was 3-2 with a 3.80 ERA. Depth is expected to come from junior college relievers John Madden and Mike Nix as well as freshmen Colin Carter and Jared Shore.
"Cory Dueitt has thrown well enough to start, but his versatility in the pen is too valuable," Renfroe says. "His experience as a set-up guy is too valuable. He's the most versatile guy and he's also the guy that when things don't go the way you want, like with Levale last year, you can put him in there and turn him loose."
The addition of backup quarterback Josh Sullivan to the catcher's role will also allow sophomore Josh Bell to see some time on the mound in a relief role if needed. Known for his strong arm and outstanding breaking ball, Bell saw some time as a reliever last season and Renfroe says that's a possibility again this season.
"If he (Sullivan) can do that it frees us up now to DH Josh Bell at times and use him," Renfroe says. "He's really good on the mound. He can give us another Steven Register sitting down there, which would make us pretty good."
The Tigers open the season on Friday when they take on Western Carolina for the first of three games this weekend at Plainsman Park. The first pitch is scheduled for 3 p.m. on Friday, 2 p.m. on Saturday and 1:30 on Sunday.