Auburn, Ala.--It's fall and that means it's time for baseball once again. It may not seem right to most sports fans but for college baseball fans this is an important time of year. This is the time when teams are made and players develop into the stars of the future.
For Auburn this fall is a time of growing. After suffering through a tough season last year in Tommy Slater's second campaign, the Tigers are a year older and wiser heading into 2007. That should mean an improvement over a 24-36 record in 2006 that saw the Tigers struggle mightily in conference play.
With the nucleus of last season's team returning virtually intact both in the field and on the mound, Slater is looking for some help in key areas this fall and that help could come from a strong freshman class that features six pitchers and four position players.
Practice officially got underway on Wednesday with the team working on fundamentals such as base running and defense. Slater says that throughout the fall the team has done well in individual workouts but he's happy to have the full team together once again on the field to see how much they've improved since last season.
"We were actually able to get out here Tuesday as a team and take advantage of a new rule that allows you to come out with more than four guys," Slater says. "We held back on some 4-on-1 work Monday and came out Tuesday and worked out as a team for a few hours although it wasn't the official start of practice. We were able to get some work in as a group. I'm anxious to get back out there."
Last season the Tigers got solid pitching from freshmen Evan Crawford and Paul Burnside and once again they'll be two of the many returning arms counted on to lead the Tigers this season. Senior Chris Dennis is another year removed from arm surgery and is back to finish his career on a high note. Reliever Johnny Thompson gives the Tigers a solid middle relief guy to get to closer Luke Greinke.
Greinke works in the outfield during Wednesday's practice.
A two-way player, Greinke is just one of the many players this fall that is getting a look at more than one spot. Also in that mix is shortstop Justin Bristow. A pitcher as well as infielder, Bristow will work on the mound as well as first and third base this fall. Slater says that many of this year's sophomores will try to expand their roles this season for the Tigers.
"He's not the only guy working at multiple positions," Slater says. "Mike Bianucci played a lot of third base last year. We're working him at third base, first base, left field and right field. Luke Greinke is working in right field, center field and a little bit in the infield as well. He's another guy with really good hands. I want to keep him out of the middle of the infield because he's so valuable on the mound. Is he going to be a starter or reliever, that all remains to be seen."
While the offense struggled at times last season the bulk of the production returns with Bianucci, Greinke, Josh Donaldson, Bruce Edwards, Andy Bennett and Russell Dixon all every day players returning, in the end Auburn will only go as far as its pitching takes it. Slater says because of that this fall is important to see how the newcomers react to facing SEC hitters and how quickly they adapt to the college game.
"The bullpens have looked great but let's see how that translates over to the game. The BP has looked really good but let's see how that translates over to when they're facing live pitching. It's a process but fall is a time for these guys to kind of prove some things and show some things. You can't get too over excited about things that happen in the fall because I have been around too long and seen too many Fall Americans to know sometimes guys have great falls and it doesn't carry over for them.
"Our whole thing is let's build forward every single day and get better every day so that Feb. 9 when we open the season we can be as good as we can be at that point. Then we continue to build forward from that point so that when we get to March 9 we're better than we were on Feb. 9."
Fans wanting to check out the Tigers this fall will have plenty of opportunities to see them in action at Plainsman Park. Slater says that hopefully all the work they put in this fall will help them prepare for what will be another tough schedule next spring.
"We'll intra-squad every Thursday, Friday, Sunday and Tuesday," Slater says. "We'll intra-squad four days a week and Wednesdays and Saturday's will be practice days. We'll still coach pitch intra-squad on those days and move around and get after it but it's basically three and a half or four weeks of taking the screens away and taking the nets away and having the guys play baseball. You still teach a lot by putting in your fundamentals, your first and third defenses, you cuts and relay systems, but it's also an opportunity to get out and perform."