Starter Levale Speigner earned the win for Coach Steve Renfroe's club with a solid six-inning effort in which he allowed just four hits and two unearned runs. A crowd of 2,871 watched at newly expanded Plainsman Park that features new box seats in left field and right field and new bullpens outside the right and left field fences.
Levale Speigner put together a strong opening game performance on the mound.
Depending on freshmen up and down the lineup, Renfroe had hoped for a chance to get many in the game early to overcome the butterflies they would experience at some point. Friday was just what the doctor ordered as an early 9-1 lead gave him a chance to play 15 position players in the game, eight who are either freshmen or junior college transfers.
"Yesterday I was running and I thought, ‘Boy, if Levale could stuff them and we could get a couple of breaks early to get some runs where everybody could get their feet wet and their emotions on an even keel it would be a big plus for us' and that's what happened," Renfroe said.
While the newcomers got most of the attention coming into the game, it was the veteran Huddleston who stole the show. Accumulating just seven hits in 34 at-bats all last season, the Montgomery native put that behind him in a big way on Friday with three singles, a double and two runs batted in before being taken out in the sixth inning following his fourth hit of the day. Getting back into the swing of things was something he's waited to do for a long time.
"It was more fun than nerve wracking," Huddleston smiled Friday following the game. "It's too much fun playing this game. People don't realize how much fun playing this game is...I missed it a lot. You can't explain how much I missed it.
"It felt good. Finally playing the first game and playing somebody new. It was good for everybody, especially the young guys. They were kind of nervous and everybody was anxious. Everybody was playing with a lot more adrenaline than we normally do. Everybody was too excited. I'm glad we got this one out of the way."
The Tigers wasted little time in getting on the board as Huddleston got things started in the second inning with one out as he singled to right field. Freshman Matt Grooms then executed a hit-and-run to perfection, sending a line drive into the left-center field gap for a double that put runners on second and third with just one out. Josh Todd followed and reached on an error by third baseman Robbie Gragnani that allowed Huddleston to score the first run of the game. Three batters later, Javon Moran doubled home Todd with the third and final run of the inning giving Auburn the 3-0 advantage.
VCU would get one back in the third inning before the Tigers would strike again. Leading off the third, Trent Pratt singled up the middle and junior college transfer Mike Mueller followed with a double to left center that was misplayed by the Ram outfielder allowing Pratt to score and himself to advance to third. Huddleston then singled to right to score Mueller and Auburn had a 5-1 lead.
That lead would balloon to eight runs following a big fourth inning. One of four freshmen in the starting lineup got things started as shortstop Chuck Jeroloman singled to center and Moran followed by reaching on an error on the shortstop, giving Auburn runners on first and second with nobody out.
Another freshman, Sean Gamble, then attempted to sacrifice the runners over but beat the throw from the pitcher to load the bases with nobody out. A wild pitch with Pratt at the plate allowed the runners to advance and Jeroloman to score before Pratt would ground out to second to score the second Tiger run of the inning. After Mueller walked, Huddleston would once again deliver the big blow, this time doubling down the right field line to score Gamble from second. Mueller would score the final run of the inning on a Matt Grooms sacrifice fly to left field giving Auburn a commanding 9-1 advantage.
That was way more than Speigner would need as he coasted through six innings following a shaky start. Despite walking two batters in the top of the first, he settled in and dominated the Rams for much of the contest. Turning the ball over to Andrew Skinner in the seventh for two innings and then Eric Brandon for the ninth, the Tiger pitching staff opened the 2002 season in fine fashion by holding VCU to just five hits.
"It took a while to get used to seeing a different uniform on the team," Speigner said. "I had to settle down a little bit later but once that happened we put runs on the board, Pratty called a great game and we just went out and took care of business."
Auburn would add two more runs in the bottom of the seventh and the Rams would put one across in the eighth to close the books on the big win for the Tigers. In addition to Huddleston's big day, Jeroloman also came through with three hits while Moran and Grooms added two each. Nine different Tigers reached safely in Friday's game.
The two teams get together again on Saturday with sophomore Cory Dueitt taking the mound against Sean Marshall. The first pitch is scheduled for 3 p.m. at Plainsman Park.