Hoping a new coaching staff and some new ideas breed new life into the program, the Tigers enter the 2005 season with very little experience, but hopes for a fresh start and a different end result.
With veterans holding key spots in the pitching rotation, the prospects for the 2004 season seemed good, but things didn't turn out as expected. Auburn finished the season with a team ERA of 4.81, but in SEC play the number ballooned to 5.76. The Tigers had just three shutouts and Arnold Hughey had the only complete game of the season, a 7-1 victory over Alabama on April 17.
Matt Myers calls signals during a recent practice.
Hughey is back as the veteran of the 2005 staff after posting a 6-4 record last year and new pitching coach Matt Myers said that Hughey will be the backbone of a young staff that is expected to be filled by junior Josh Sullivan and sophomores Mike Felix or Jared Shore until injured veteran Chris Dennis can get back to full strength from an arm injury suffered during the fall.
"I expect Mike to be ready for us against Hofstra," Myers said. "I like the work Mike has done. Arnold is going to open up for us on Friday night and he's really pitched well in practice.
"Chris just got banged up a little bit in the fall. It was a freak thing. He's worked extremely hard and we expect him back later this month. He'll definitely be back before conference play. When we get him we'll be clicking on all cylinders by then. If we can get all of our people healthy we've got a good chance to have a very good staff.
"On paper, we've really got a lot of options and some strong options. The big thing for us is that we don't' have a lot of innings under our belt outside of Hughey. We have to stay healthy. That's the big thing."
A former football player for the Tigers, Sullivan has a chance to be one of the biggest benefactors of a coaching change as his shot at becoming a starting pitcher becomes a reality this season. After pitching just one inning last season out of the bullpen, Sullivan has worked hard with Myers to become a more complete pitcher and his new coach said the extra time has paid off handsomely.
"One of the guys that has really been a real nice surprise has been Josh Sullivan, a guy that played football here for two years and then had to make a decision this year what to do," Myers added. "He threw one inning on the mound last year. He was predominantly a catcher, first baseman and hit. He had to make the transition into pitching and he's been unbelievable. He's got some of the best stuff that I've seen. It's electric, but it's a matter of how consistent he can get."
Waiting in the wings for a shot with Dennis on the mend is sophomore Jared Shore. With a record of 0-1 last season and his longest outing just three and two/thirds innings, he has come back stronger and ready to show that he's capable of being a go-to guy out the bullpen for Auburn.
"Jared Shore, right now where we're at, could be a guy that makes some starts until we get some other guys where they need to be," Myers said. "Every time he goes out, like Sullivan, he gets better and better. His arm strength is getting better. He's got three pitches. His curveball has been outstanding. He's got a very good demeanor on the mound."
Mike Felix could be a key player for the 2005 Tigers.
Middle relief is perhaps the most important part of a pitching staff on the collegiate level because of the penchant to score runs in the college game. That means many times throughout the year you depend on the relievers to keep you in a game until your offense takes control.
In that role for the Tigers this year will be several young players and transfer Josh Blake from Arizona State. Leading the way at the moment is true freshman Cliff Mullins from Fairhope, but Ted Bryant, who threw just 29 pitches last year, will also see some work. .
"The newcomer I really like is Cliff Mullins," Myers said. "He has a chance to be very special for us. He's got two secondary pitches that our guys can't touch in his change-up and slider. Right now his goal is to just locate the fastball. He got sick over Christmas and lost some weight, about 10 or 12 pounds, which has hurt him. Right now if the game is getting close I wouldn't be surprised if he's out there for us. He's been that good for us.
"I think Ted Bryant is going to help us from the left side," Myers added. "I think he's only given up three hits from the fall until now against left-handers since I've been here. He's been very effective. That could be a big guy for us this year because there are some good left hand hitters in this league."
Michael Nix is shown in action last season vs. VCU.
In the closer role the Tigers have two very capable options in junior Michael Nix and senior John Madden. Last season the duo combined for just two wins, but each gave glimpses of the talent needed to be the stopper out of the pen. Myers said with some work last fall and early this spring, both are ready to take over for the Tigers if needed.
"They've both accepted the challenge," Myers said. "Nix wants to be our closer. Madden wants to be in there. We haven't had any success off Madden. I changed his arm slot a little bit and now he's got a lot of sink on the ball. He's so tough to see in a game when it's crucial because of his arm slot. You're not really sure what he's doing. They're both big, physical, tough guys and they're not going to be intimidated. They might intimidate some people. That's what I want them to do."
Despite some injuries and newcomers to the rotation, Auburn is looking for a solid year on the mound in 2005. The season opens Friday Feb. 4 when the Tigers take on Hofstra at Plainsman Park.