Future Promising For Slater and Tigers

We'll never know what would have happened if Karl Amonite had not been hurt.

We know he would have come to bat in the eighth inning Saturday with the tying run on second base in Auburn's gut-wrenching 4-3 loss to Florida State.

We know his presence on the left side of the plate would have been ominous Sunday for sidewinding Florida State reliever Kevin Lynch, a right-hander.

We'll never know what would have happened if Josh Sullivan had been able to throw strikes Saturday night. Florida State was handed eight walks, a hit batter and a wild pitch and still had to hang on for dear life to win 4-3. We know that Florida State hitters had little luck until Sullivan finally had to resort to throwing fastballs down the middle of the plate.

The most unimposing Florida State team I have seen in a regional was indeed fortunate. The Seminoles beat Army 3-2 on just two hits in theopening round because they got five walks from terrific pitcher Nick Hill, scored one run on a passed ball and another on a wild throw by catcher Schuyler Williamson on a pickoff attempt at third base.

The Seminoles won the regional with outstanding pitching and defense and by taking advantage of the opportunities they were given. For that, they deserve credit. They play "small ball" exceptionally well.

Auburn did everything it could. The Tigers made just one error in four games. They struck early and had the lead in three of the games. They played with heart and dedication. They could have won, but their margin of error was just so small. Once they dropped into the losers' bracket Saturday night, the mountain became too tall to climb.

Pitcher Cliff Mullins did an outstanding job in a 12-3 win over Army, holding the Black Knights to two hits in five innings. But Auburn needed a solid start against Florida State, and Jared Shore couldn't provide it. Coach Tom Slater had to go to Michael Nix too early.

Coach Tom Slater (33) addresses his team on Sunday following their final game of his first season as Auburn's head coach.

Like so many other trips to Tallahassee, this one ended one game away from playing for a championship. So it was in 1989, 1998, 1999 and 2001. Only in 1997 did the Tigers escape here with a championship. In 1989, 1998 and 2001, they were beaten at the same point they lost this time. In 1999, Florida State won the Super Regional in two games.

But what the Tigers did over the weekend was give a glimpse into the future. Third baseman Josh Donaldson and outfielder Jeff Boutwell, both freshmen, were standouts. Second baseman Tyler Johnstone was on fire at the plate. Sophomore outfielder Bruce Edwards might have been the MVP had Auburn won the regional. All will be back next season.

As the season progressed, the Tigers took on more and more of the hard-nosed, never-say-die personality of first-year coach Tom Slater. They didn't have the greatest of seasons, going 13-17 in the SEC and squeezing into the regional despite missing the league tournament. But only five Auburn teams have gone further in the NCAA Tournament.

There will still be growing pains next season. The pitching staff will be frightfully young. This Auburn team had definite flaws, but it was not without talent. That will be obvious Tuesday in the Major League draft. On offense, there are no obvious replacements who can be counted on to provide the leadership and the production of Amonite, Josh Bell and Clete Thomas.

But given time, Slater is going to build a big winner at Auburn. That much was obvious, even as the Tigers left the field in disappointment Sunday night.

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I am told I misunderstood the process for making donations in honor of Sydney Gran, the late daughter of Auburn running backs coach Eddie Gran and his wife, Rosemary.

The family asks that donations be made to the Sydney Gran Foundation at Children's Hospital in Birmingham or to Auburn United Methodist Church, not that donations to the foundation be made through the church as I wrote in this space Friday.

Those wishing to donate to the Sydney Gran Foundation, which will provide financial help for families of very ill children at Children's Hospital, should send them to Children's Hospital at 1600 7th Ave. South, Birmingham, AL, 35233.


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