New Look Baseball Tigers Off And Running

Auburn, Ala.–-Fans heading to Plainsman Park next spring to catch the Auburn baseball Tigers in action will have a lot of learning to do with 26 new players out of the 47 taking part in fall practice for second-year coach Tommy Slater.

Despite a lack of experience at several key positions and losses to his top three hitters from last season (Karl Amonite, Josh Bell, Clete Thomas), Slater says that he feels like this team will have a chance to be successful because of the number of quality players on the roster.

"Overall I think we have greater team athleticism and that shows up defensively. It shows up at the plate. We've got more bat swingers from top to bottom. I'm not going to say anybody is going to put up the kind of numbers a Karl Amonite put up last year because we've got a lot of young players, but the greater depth of the lineup has a chance to be pretty good."

Leading the way for the Tigers is senior second baseman Tyler Johnstone. He hit .328 as a junior last season, starting every game for the Tigers. He's back to anchor an infield that will be very young. With Amonite gone at first the job will go to the duo of Ryan Stanley and Andy Bennett. A Georgia Tech transfer, the 6-4, 220 Stanley will likely play against left-handers while Miami transfer Andy Bennett (6-0, 220) will play against righties.

Big shortstop Justin Bristow has been impressive this fall. Currently he's not throwing as the Tigers prefer to rest his arm after a long season of high school pitching in addition to playing quarterback in football.

On the left side of the infield the Tigers will be young with 6-4, 210 Bristow the favorite to win the starting job at shortstop while powerful Mike Bianucci (6-1, 200) or fellow freshman Like Greinke (6-0, 170) both could see action at third base and possibly the outfield. That's because last year's third baseman Josh Donaldson (5-11, 182, So.) has moved to catcher for fall practice and will still play some on the infield. Slater says that so far through three practices he likes what he's seen out of his team.

"It's going really well," Slater says. "I have been very impressed. We have swung the bats, both Saturday and Sunday, really, really well. A lot of bat swingers on this team. Monday I still thought we had some good at-bats, but we didn't have the whole team out there because of class schedules. I thought we still did a good job.

"Some of the older guys like Dixon (sophomore Russell Dixon) and Johnstone (Tyler Johnstone) have done a nice job. Some of the new guys like Bianucci (freshman Mike Bianucci), Stanley (junior Ryan Stanley), Bennett (junior Andy Bennett) and Jenkins (freshman catcher Ryan Jenkins) have really played well. We've had a lot of guys swinging it good. Phillip Stringer has been solid. Bristow (freshman Justin Bristow) has really shown his skills defensively at shortstop."

Perhaps the biggest position to watch this fall will be at catcher where Donaldson has taken to the position well. He is on pace to start a good portion of Auburn's games there in the spring with freshman Ryan Jenkins (6-2, 215) a strong possibility to be the back-up based on his early play this fall. Also seeing time there at the moment are senior Jay Osbourne (6-4, 220) and true freshman Garrett Maines (5-10, 180).

"Donaldson and Jenkins have both looked really good behind the plate," Slater says. "I have been very happy with their receiving, their throwing, their blocking. They've really done a nice job out there."

Sophomore Clarence Nicely is throwing in the upper 80s and looks to be a threat to break into the rotation for the Tigers next spring.

On the mound the Tigers must replace starters Arnold Hughey and Josh Sullivan as well as key relievers John Madden and Michael Nix, but good news came for the team as they opened fall practice. Out all of last season after having Tommy John surgery, junior Chris Dennis (6-1, 204) has been cleared to throw and will face live batters for the first time this weekend as the Tigers scrimmage at Plainsman Park.

"He threw his last set of simulated pitches on Sunday. He threw very well. He'll be just a fastball and a change-up, but he'll throw live to hitters this weekend."

Limiting pitchers to either 60 pitches or six innings, which ever comes first, the Tigers will get to see a variety of arms in action before the equipment is put away for the winter. Through three days of live action and a month of instruction Slater says that the talent is there on the mound for the Tigers to be successful.

"Clarence Nicely (6-6, 210, So.) and Jared Shore (6-3, 180, Jr.) both threw the ball well," Slater says of their first intra-squad outings. "The two older guys and it was nice to see them throw the ball well. Andy Masten (6-0, 190, Jr., Iowa Western CC) had his second outing on Monday. It was solid again after throwing Saturday for two innings. On Sunday Evan Crawford (6-0, 180, Fr.) really threw the ball well. He was 91 or 92 from the left side and for the fall he really had some good stuff going. He has a little cutter that Coach Matt Myers has been working with him on and it looked good.

"Bryan Woodall (5-10, 175) has done a nice job, another freshman. Peter Wiggins (6-0, 180, Jr., Mississippi Gulf Coast JC) threw the ball well on his first day. We've had a couple of walk-ons throw the ball well also. Andrew Hall (5-11, 165, Jr., Athens, AL) and Johnny Thompson (5-10, 190, Jr., Southern Union CC) both have thrown the ball well."

Other names to watch for on the mound for the Tigers this fall and next spring will be sophomore Cliff Mullins (6-2, 180), Darton Community College transfer Brett Butts (6-2, 180, So.), and freshman Brandon Teague (6-2, 200), a standout at Pope High in Marietta last season.

The Tigers will continue intra-squad scrimmages throughout the month of October and they are scheduled for every weekend. That includes each Friday night at 7, Saturday at 4 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m. Friday night Oct. 28, the night before the Ole Miss football game, will be a special night at Plainsman Park with a home run derby set for the team as well as local celebrities. Slater says that hopefully fans will get a chance to see the team this fall because if they do they'll see a team that is fun to watch play the game.

"I have just been very pleased," Slater says. "Our energy has been good. We've really turned our bodies loose on defense. We've made a lot of nice plays, both in the outfield and in the infield. I have been pleases overall with just about every facet of the game."

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