Expected to win their conference and make the NCAA Regionals this season, the Rams brought a talented and experienced team into Plainsman Park only to leave with three dominating defeats on their hands.
The Tigers used the combination of solid pitching and surprising hitting prowess to outscore the Rams 28-9 over the three-day series. Especially impressive for Auburn was the play of several freshmen who earned starts over the weekend. One of those was left fielder Sean Gamble. In addition to solid outings by Matt Grooms, Chuck Jeroloman and Tug Hulett, the Montgomery native was the fourth freshman starter. He collected five hits in 15 at-bats for the weekend and said he felt more comfortable as the weekend went along.
Freshman Sean Gamble had a solid opening weekend as a college baseball player.
"I felt good today," he said following Sunday's game. "My coach gave me some advice and I just tried to settle down and play my game. I just can't try to do too much, just play my role and help the team...I settled down today. Friday and Saturday I tried to do too much and got out of my game. I'm not a power hitter so I just played my role to get base hits and let the other guys drive me in...It's great," he said of playing at Auburn. "All the fans are here and it's just a great atmosphere to play in."
Another freshman who stood out on the weekend was pitcher Reid Price. A walk-on from North Carolina, the left-hander brings a different look to the Tiger pitching staff, one they haven't had much of in recent years. While Auburn staffs have been very deep in right-handers, southpaws have been few and far between for Tiger teams. Needing someone to step into that role this season, head coach Steve Renfroe said Price has really given them a boost out of the pen this spring as evidenced by his two scoreless innings in relief during Sunday's game.
"Reid is unflappable," Renfroe said. "The first thing we noticed when he got here was this kid is not afraid of anything. He's like a veteran. He actually touched some 86s (miles per hour) when he's been 82 or 83. All of a sudden he goes out and pops an 85 or 86 against their top guys. You kind of like to see that. He didn't go the other way. He bumped it up and had a nice change-up. He's a good guy to come in behind Colby (Paxton), who is big and fluid. Here's that little jerk delivery and the change-up just kind of stops in mid-air. He did a great job."
Saturday was Ken Clayton day at Plainsman Park.
Even with the three-game sweep of the Rams in hand, it was hard not to think back to Saturday's game as being the most important of the series. Not because of what the score was or what happened in the game, simply because a young man was able to play the game he loves once again. Just over one year ago, not only his baseball career but his life looked to be in jeopardy as Ken Clayton lay on the mound at Plainsman Park in blinding pain following a line drive to the face during an intra-squad game. With his breathing stopping at least twice before being taken to a local hospital, it is a miracle that he's even able to talk about his comeback, much less participate in it. Accomplishments like his performance on Saturday can make sports special. You can bet that the several thousand fans at Plainsman Park that day to witness his comeback in person won't soon the forget his emotional afternoon.
"It was great," Saturday's starting pitcher Cory Dueitt said of his teammate's first college game appearance. "It meant something to everybody over there and all our fans. You could tell when he took the mound, everybody stood up and gave him an ovation. It's great seeing him out there. We went through all that with him last year and everybody was right there with him. Now to get him out there and for him to do well was great. He's going to be a big part of our success this year."
If success means having fun and doing things the right way, this team is already in midseason form.
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