Friday Is Baseball Opening Day For Tigers

Auburn, Ala.--Coach Tommy Slater's second season as Auburn's head baseball coach gets started Friday afternoon as the Tigers take on VMI in the first of three games this weekend at Plainsman Park.

With the heart of last season's regional team gone, Auburn will depend on several key veterans and a wealth of young talent in 2006 against a veteran VMI team.

"The seniors on the VMI team played for me as freshmen and as a group of kids they set the school record for wins," Slater says. "As sophomores they had the second-highest win total ever. Then last year as juniors the helped to re-set the school record for wins. It's a group of kids I know really well and they've done nothing but be successful at VMI.

"They're tough and they're not afraid," he adds. "It will be a good opening weekend test for our team. As you know, baseball is different than anything else. Any team is capable of winning at any time."

Opening day starter Chris Dennis returns off a season-ending surgery last year.

This weekend the Tigers will send veteran Chris Dennis to the mound on Friday for his first action in more than a year. Coming off Tommy John surgery last season, Dennis will face the Keydets as a full-time starter for the first time in his career.

Saturday's starter is scheduled to be junior college transfer Peter Wiggins while Sunday is true freshman lefty Evan Crawford. Slater says he's anxious to see how his starters do in the first series of the year and how his young team responds to the new challenge.

"I'm looking forward to it," Slater says. "We obviously have got a lot of new players in this year, both on the mound and positionally. I'm looking forward to seeing them compete against another club. Through practice and through drills and through intra-squad, we detail everything.

"We can tell you how many hits our guys have gotten, how many they've given up, how many strikeouts, all that, but now it's a different color jersey. Now it's time to see how these guys perform against another group. What has been consistent from day one has been their work ethic and attitude. I'm very positive that these guys will come out and play hard."

Returning starters Tyler Johnstone, Bruce Edwards, Jeff Boutwell and Josh Donaldson highlight a talented but very inexperienced offense. Senior Derek Sain should be in the lineup as well in right field while Russell Dixon is expected to get the start as the designated hitter.

That leaves several positions up for grabs and they will be manned by newcomers as true freshmen Justin Bristow and Mike Bianucci nabbed the starting jobs at shortstop and third base, respectively.

Nursing a sore ankle, Bianucci may miss the opening weekend and if that happens Slater says Donaldson would move back to third. There's also the possibility that Johnstone could see some time at third with South Alabama transfer Josh Stapleton taking over at second.

"The one thing that we've got is position player depth this year that we didn't have a year ago," Slater says. "We've got a pretty good third baseman who is catching in Josh Donaldson. With Mike going down with the ankle injury we'll just slide Josh back out to third base. The good news is from a defensive perspective it won't be a real big drop-off behind the plate with Ryan Jenkins and Garrett Maines. They are all very capable defensive catchers.

"The bottom line is that guys get hurt and that's why you practice hard and play hard and move forward," he adds. "I hate it for Mike because he was going to get to play his first college game this weekend, but we feel like we've got a number of capable players in the program. You can't worry that he's not able to go. We'll just get him his treatment and when he's ready to go he'll go. You move forward and other guys get an opportunity to play. I think you look at it that way."

Big shortstop Justin Bristow will be a key player for the Tigers this season.

On the other side of the infield Miami transfer Andy Bennett gets the ball at first base and should provide the Tigers with a solid glove and an outstanding bat at the plate. Not a true power hitter, Bennett should be a run producer in the middle of the order. Fellow transfer first baseman Ryan Stanley should be back this weekend after taking a blow to the face that required 13 stitches last week. Slater says Stanley may be back by Saturday in a designated hitter role.

Game times for the weekend are 4 p.m. on both Friday and Saturday. Sunday's start time is set for 1 p.m. Fans attending the Friday game are encouraged to park in the lot north of Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum because of an event that will block off the lot between Plainsman Park and the coliseum.

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