Time For Tigers To Play Ball

Auburn, Ala.--Coach <b>Steve Renfroe</b> and the Auburn baseball Tigers open the 2002 season this weekend when they face the Virginia Commonwealth Rams at newly expanded Plainsman Park.

Fresh off a 37-21 season in his first year as head coach, Renfroe welcomes back a deep pitching staff, several key veterans and a talented class of newcomers as he embarks on year two of his time at the helm of the Tiger program. Things get underway as they face a solid VCU club on the opening weekend of play.

"I think everybody realizes we are looking to have a good piching staff," Renfroe says. "That was something we felt strongly about at the end of last season when the young guys came on."

Renfroe toughened the preconference schedule so he wouldn't have any false impressions of his Tigers when league play begins in March. "We think our biggest need is to just grow up as hitters. We will probably be the youngest team in the league and probably play one of the Top 10 schedules in the country. We picked up North Carolina, we picked up Clemson on the road, which is ranked number two. We are playing Georgia Tech again, South Alabama again and VCU is picked to win its league. But that is by design. This young club needs to be in that environment to get ready for the SEC."

Fresh off taking the LSU Tigers down to the wire in last year's NCAA Regionals, the Rams present the Tigers with a serious challenge on the opening weekend of play. The strength of the team is on the pitching staff and Auburn will see three serious starters this weekend as Bo Acors, Sean Marshall and Davy Martin are expected to toe the rubber in the three game series.

Levale Speigner is back after a strong sophomore season.

Acors, a senior right-hander, was 9-2 last season with a 3.70 ERA and will start Friday for the Rams. He will be opposed by Auburn's ace Levale Speigner. The junior right-hander from Thomasville, Ga., was 8-3 last season with an ERA of 3.49 in 113 1/3 innings pitched. Saturday afternoon has Marshall going against Cory Dueitt for Auburn. Marshall was 9-4 last season with a 3.34 ERA while Dueitt was 3-4 with an ERA of 4.89 in just six starts. Sunday has Martin facing Colby Paxton. Martin was 7-2 with a 5.56 ERA last season while Paxton, in mostly a reserve role, was 5-4 with a 4.06 ERA and had 10 starts.

While the pitching is solid for both teams, at the plate the Tiger lineup is full of question marks. Leading things off will be center fielder Javon Moran. Coming off a freshman All-American season in the outfield, the sophomore is bigger and stronger and should provide a solid bat at the top of the order. Following him will be one of two true freshmen in the outfield, Sean Gamble. The son of former Major Leaguer Oscar Gamble will likely earn the start in left field and his left-handed bat and speed is a solid addition to the lineup.

Sean Gamble

Batting third for the Tigers should be Trent Pratt. Following an injury-hampered season when he hit .308 with seven home runs and 41 runs batted in, the senior is finally healthy and looks to provide some much needed leadership from behind the plate as both a receiver and hitter. Behind him may be the surprise of the spring in Bobby Huddleston. The Montgomery native has also battled injuries, but appears to be on the verge of providing the power and average that he was known for coming out of high school. Serving as the designated hitter for much of the time, he will also split time with Pratt behind the plate. Last season he hit just .206 in only 34 at-bats.

Trent Pratt

While the first four in the order are apparently set, the bottom five are somewhat of a mystery. One possibility is that big first baseman Mike Mueller will hit behind Huddleston in the five hole. At 6-5, 222 pounds with a sweet left-handed swing, Mueller will see action at both first base and in the outfield. Known for hitting the long ball, he'll be a solid addition to an Auburn team looking for some pop. Last season at Madison Area Technical College in Wisconsin he belted 18 home runs in 56 games while adding 10 triples.

Following Mueller could be another left-handed stick in true freshman Matt Grooms. Showing power and discipline at the plate so far this spring, the Montgomery native could provide some much needed protection for the middle of the order if he can show some early power.

The bottom of the order will likely consist of infielders Josh Todd, Jonathan Schuerholz and Chuck Jeroloman, but the question is in which order.

Todd is a rangy junior college transfer from Florida Community College in Jacksonville. Expected to start at third base, the 6-3, 197-pound Todd provides a solid glove and suprising quickness to the lineup. Last season he hit .292 with two home runs and 21 runs batted in while playing shortstop.

Schuerholz is one of the unquestioned leaders on the Auburn team and will see action at both short and second base this season. Last season he hit .242 with 33 runs batted in after an outstanding freshman year in 2000. His leadership and experience under pressure will be a big bonus for this Tiger team as two true freshmen will vie to take his spot all season long. One of those, Jeroloman, is expected to get the start at shortstop this weekend. A silky smooth defender with some firepower at the plate, he will be counted on to provide excellent defense and give help at the plate when needed. As a senior last year at Venice (Fla.) High, he hit .389 with 15 doubles, seven triples and 27 runs batted in.

Tug Hulett is shown during a preseason workout.

The other freshman who will see some action is Tug Hulett from Evangel Christian in Shreveport, La. A solid stick at the plate with good range in the field, he can play both second base and shortstop, but is probably more suited for the right side of the infield. As a senior this son of a former Major Leaguer (Tim Hulett) hit .469 with eight doubles, three home runs and 29 runs batted in.

While it is expected that the pitching and defense will carry this Auburn club, the offense has the potential to feature a nice balance of speed and power throughout the lineup. The first pitch on opening day is scheduled for 3 p.m. and the ceremonial first ball will be thrown by four former Tiger stars. Mailon Kent, Todd Faulkner, Hayden Gliemmo and Gabe Gross will be on hand to deliver the opening pitches for the 2002 season on Friday. Saturday's first pitch is set for 3 p.m. as well and Sunday is a 1:30 start.

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