Tigers Blending Experience And New Talent

In part two of a preview of the 2004 baseball season, Auburn's infielders and outfielders are featured.

Auburn, Ala.--While six everyday starters return from last season's 42-21 team, the Auburn baseball Tigers must replaced a wealth of experience and productivity in the everyday lineup with the losses of Javon Moran, Bobby Huddleston and Scott Schade.

To do that Coach Steve Renfroe will turn to a veteran lineup and a what should be a solid defense to keep the Tiger program winning in 2004.

"This is the first time we've had a senior class," Renfroe says. "We don't have to play new guys. That's the first time that has happened. That's nice to know. I think the stage is set now to continue on and get that kind of team that just goes out there and ready to compete on that level each time out. This senior class and the juniors are very capable of doing that."

Like last season when Moran and Huddleston were the backbone of a solid Tiger lineup in the middle of the field, this season will be much the same with shortstop Chuck Jeroloman and second baseman Tug Hulett supplying outstanding defense and solid hitting for the Tigers. Auburn's leading hitter last season at .373 with 25 doubles, Hulett has been outstanding in all areas of the game.

Unlike Hulett, who has done well both offensively and defensively, Jeroloman has been known as mostly a defender during his two seasons as Auburn's shortstop. A sure-handed fielder with a rocket arm, Jeroloman struggled at the plate last season and with injuries as he hit just .224, but has been strong at the plate all fall and this spring. He could give the bottom of the Auburn order some punch in 2004.

Tug Hulett is expected to be one of the top infielders in the SEC this season.

"I have definitely seen a difference in Chuck," Hulett says. "He learned how to hit this summer. Those guys in the Cape (Cape Cod League) if you don't learn how to hit they'll eat your lunch. He did a great job making adjustments and he's really going to be a key for us this year as far as having right-handed hitters in the lineup that can do something with the bat. He's been here. This is his third year. He can play and he's going to be a key for us."

The middle of the order should again be strong with Hulett, center fielder Clete Thomas, first baseban Karl Amonite and catcher Josh Bell all back after posting solid campaigns in 2003.

A speedster with some power, Thomas has moved from right field to center field this season and looks to build on an impressive end to his freshman season. Despite hitting just .297 last season with two home runs and 27 runs batted in, Thomas had seven hits in 16 at-bats in last year's NCAA Regional in Auburn and hit .355 in the postseason.

Expected to be Auburn's top power supply in 2004, Amonite has battled an elbow problem this spring, but should be healthy for the Tigers' season opener on Friday. The 6-5, 235-pound left-hander hit .330 last season with 12 home runs, 56 runs batted in and a slugging percentage of .578. Just like Thomas, Amonite got stronger as the season progressed last year. In eight postseason games he hit .379 with two home runs, three doubles, five runs batted in and four walks.

Back after missing Auburn's last nine games of the 2003 season because of a fractured finger, Bell is bigger and stronger and should provide some much-needed right-handed hitting to the Auburn lineup. Last season he hit .295 with eight home runs, 15 doubles and 35 runs batted in. Working on his defense a great deal since returning to action this spring, Bell will team with backup quarterback Josh Sullivan behind the plate to give the Tigers a solid one-two punch.

Karl Amonite will be counted on drive home runs.

Spending his freshman season on the mound, Sullivan has returned to his more comfortable role in the field as a sophomore and should team with Bell to give Auburn power in the middle of the order from the right side. In three high school seasons he hit 19 home runs and never hit below .418. His best season came as a junior when he hit .495 with seven homers, 10 doubles and 49 runs batted in.

Both Bell and Sullivan are needed behind the plate because of an injury to Tyler Johnstone, who was expected to be Auburn's starting third baseman. A transfer from Purdue, Johnstone was brought in to take over for Schade at third base. That isn't going to be the case because of a torn bicep muscle which will keep him out for the year. In his place will be junior college transfer Ben Maitland.

Normally a catcher, the 6-0, 173-pounder will get the start at third base to open the season and could also play shortstop and second base in addition to his ability behind the plate. Working at third base along with him will be sophomore Kyle Mayo from Vestavia Hills and Sullivan could also see some action there.

In the outfield with Thomas in center will be Sean Gamble in left field and either walk-on J.T. Williamsom or sophomore Derek Sain in right field. A veteran starter for two seasons with the Tigers, Gamble is a third-team preseason All-American nominee by Baseball America this year after hitting .300 in 2003 with three home runs, 33 runs batted in and 47 runs scored.

Sean Gamble made the Cape Cod League all-star team last summer.

The excitement for the Tigers could come from Williamson. A junior college transfer who didn't play baseball last season, the 5-7, 156-pounder is expected to be Auburn's lead-off hitter in 2003 and has the ability to get on base and make things happen. As a sophomore in 2002 playing at Seminole Community College in Florida he hit .301 with five doubles, two home runs, 44 runs scored and 20 runs batted in. He also was successful on 18 of 21 stolen base attempts. He played his freshman season at Tallahassee Junior College.

"The problem with losing Tyler (Johnstone) this season is there went our one-two hitter-runner so really the only lead-off guy we have is J.T.," Renfroe says. "We don't really have a lead-off guy other than him. We're going to have to see how things go. We'll play the hottest guys and the best matchups at time."

In limited opportunities last season, Sain hit .277 with three doubles and five runs batted in. He started all four of Auburn's NCAA Regional games last season and went 5-16 with at least one hit in each contest.

Other players who could get a look in the outfield are junior college transfer Ben Sprague, former football signee Bruce Edwards (also playing second base) and freshmen Blake Heym and Drew Mims.

With experience, new blood and talented players, the Tigers will try to make a run at advancing to the College World Series. To do that they will have to get over the hurdle of regional play in the postseason. Hulett says the memory of Ohio State winning a regional at Plainsman Park has been a motivation for this team since the final out last year.

"Nobody likes losing and nobody likes losing at home and nobody likes losing in the playoffs at home," Hulett says. "That makes it even worse. I think that has been a huge motivation. Steven (Steven Register) and I are going to play on that a little bit. We may get a picture from last year of guys after the game celebrating on our field. We just want to remind guys of how it feels during the season. We'll take it down, but we want to get it up there and remind them that it stinks. Then we'll get after it again and that will motivate us even more."

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