Pitching The Key For Tigers In 2007

Auburn's Tommy Slater talks about the opening of practice for his baseball Tigers.

Auburn, Ala.—Year three of the Tommy Slater era is officially under way as the Auburn baseball Tigers are back on the practice field as they begin preparations for the 2007 season. Looking to put the program back on the college baseball map after failing to make the SEC Tournament or a NCAA Regional last season Slater says that he likes the attitude of the team and the work ethic they've shown since getting back on the field.

"Our guys really came back in good shape and we had a nice week of work with our individual stuff," Slater says. "The pitchers got some bullpens in and the position players got a lot of defensive work and ground balls. Now to start spring practice and have a couple of intrasquad games under our belt already has been great. The guys have a lot of energy and are bouncing around the field."

With several key position players returning including Josh Donaldson, Mike Bianucci, Bruce Edwards, Andy Bennett, Russell Dixon and Luke Greinke, Slater has a solid core to build around on offense but it's the pitching staff that must come through for the Tigers to take a step forward in 2007. With talented sophomores Evan Crawford, Paul Burnside and Bryan Woodall back as well as relievers Chris Dennis and Johnny Thompson, the pitching staff has some experience but Slater says it's in the freshman class where the difference could be made this season.

"The most important thing you have to build is a pitching staff," Slater says. "We're two recruiting classes into that now. I really like the quality and depth of our staff right now. I think that in itself can change the look of things immediately. When you can run guys out there virtually every day on both sides of an intrasquad and they are quality guys and your hitters are getting looks at legitimate SEC pitching it just helps every thing."

Joseph Sanders fields a ground ball during a rainy practice at Plainsman Park. Sanders is expected to see time at third base this season.

While newcomers Robert Brooks from Enterprise, Joseph Sanders from Millbrook and Ross Smith from Eastman, Ga. are expected to make an impact in the field along with redshirt freshman Eric Skinner from Phenix City, the bulk of the newcomer help will come on the mound. Slater says that so far the class has shown they have the talent and pitching prowess to help the Tigers right away.

"When you get on the mound you have Austin Hubbard from up at Homewood," Slater says. "This young man can really spin two different breaking balls. He commands his fastball to both sides of the plate. He's upper 80s and low 90s with two really good breaking balls. Taylor Thompson is a legitimate power right-handed pitcher with a slider that is really developing. He threw Monday in an intrasquad and he dominated. He's got a heck of a future in our program. Scott Shuman is a guy that was drafted last year by the Brewers. He's more of a lower arm slot with some really good sink. He gets on that baseball and it runs for him. He's just another positive and quality arm.

"You also have a guy like Ty Kelley that is a walk on from Columbus. He can really spin a breaking ball. Those are some freshmen arms that I have been really happy with. Add those guys into the mix with Woodall and Burnside and Crawford and Greinke and it lends to having pretty good pitching staff depth. There are some other guys that I haven't mentioned. As a staff we've been throwing the ball well."

The Tigers will continue to practice and have intrasquad games until the first weekend of play. Opening the season Feb. 9 against Hofstra the Tigers will begin a tough stretch of non-conference games before opening play in the always tough SEC. Slater says that he likes where his pitching staff and entire team is at the moment as they work towards opening day.

"We have really thrown the ball well," Slater says. "Our pitchers obviously worked hard at home over the break with their throwing programs. We're a couple of days in now and things have been real clean. We've caught it really well and we've pitched it very well. We've been very strike zone dominant. The stuff has been pretty good too. To be in our second day of team practice I'm really pleased with where we are right now."

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