Featuring a team that has more talent both on the mound and in the field than last year, Slater is looking for better play out of both areas as the Tigers look to get back to the SEC Tournament and a NCAA Regional. Friday is the first chance to see how much improvement Auburn has made on the baseball diamond in the last year and Slater says he's anxious to see how his team responds.
"It's very exciting to get the season under way," he says. "We've had really good work in January and February in preparation for the season. In particular our last week and a half have been particularly crisp and sharp. We've had really good intrasquads the last weekend. They are ready to play and get on the field and see somebody in a different uniform."
Hofstra comes in to the opening weekend of the season a veteran team with three senior starting pitchers returning from last year's 24-win club. Ryan Dunn, Will DeVito and Patrick Rogers all started at least 11 games in 2006 and give coach Chris Dotolo a solid rotation to build around. At the plate Hofstra must replace standout Ricky Caputo off last year's team after he hit .324 with 12 home runs and 47 RBI. Slater says that although Hofstra is missing some offensive weapons he expects a tough challenge this weekend.
"They're going to have three senior right-handers to throw at us and they've all thrown in this ball park for three years in a row," Slater says. "They are not going to be intimidated by any stretch of the imagination. Chris Dotolo and I grew up playing against each other. We have known each other for a long time. Chris got to Triple A with the Giants. He's a very good baseball man. His Hofstra teams are always well prepared.
"They're going to do the little things like hit and run and bunt. You want to face teams that prepare you for the upcoming season. They've got seniors on the mound that are not afraid and are going to throw strikes. The last two years we've had to hit walk-off homers on two occasions to beat them. They're a good team that has some older guys. I'm looking forward to seeing our guys in a competitive atmosphere against another team."
Auburn will counter Hofstra's experience on the mound with a very inexperienced rotation featuring sophomores Bryan Woodall and Justin Bristow and freshman Austin Hubbard. A part-time starter as a freshman, Woodall will get the Friday start with Bristow on Saturday and Hubbard on Sunday. Slater says that for the first time since he's been back at Auburn he feels good about his pitching depth and that will only get better as the Tigers get in to the season.
"When you talk about the long and middle relievers you are probably talking about Josh Blake and Brett Butts," Slater says. "When you're talking about set up guys it will be Johnny Thompson and Scott Shuman. At the back end of the game as closers will be Luke Greinke and Chris Dennis. Paul Burnside is nursing a little bit of a groin pull and is day to day, but it seems to be getting better each day. We don't want to use him unless it's a situation where he says he's feeling 100 percent. Evan Crawford will not pitch this weekend. Evan will pitch out of the bullpen on Tuesday and then back in the weekend rotation against UNC-Greensboro."
Luke Greinke will serve as Auburn's closer as well as pulling double duty as the designated hitter.
With more pitching options the Tigers should be able to stay in more games this season instead of last year's problems that left many games not winnable because of a lack of quality arms. Because of that Auburn looks to be a much more competitive team in 2007. The middle of the Auburn order is also another reason for promise this season.
Returning key offensive weapons Mike Bianucci, Josh Donaldson and Andy Bennett in the middle as well as Bruce Edwards and Luke Greinke at the top of the order, Auburn has the chance in 2007 to score with teams if that is what it takes to get the win. Slater says added depth with the position players is something that should also make for a better year in his third at the helm at Auburn.
"As far as position players on Friday night it will be Donaldson behind the plate, Bennett at first, Robert Brooks at second, Eric Skinner at short, Phillip Stringer at third, Bianucci in left, Bruce Edwards in center and Ross Smith in right," Slater says. "Greinke will likely be the DH. Other guys that will be in the mix to play will be Joseph Sanders at third base maybe at some point during the weekend, potentially Dustin Spruill behind the plate if there's some game we don't catch Donaldson.
"All those guys have had good Januarys along with Ben Jones. Russell Dixon is out six to weight weeks (broken thumb). The reason I like Greinke there (as the designated hitter) is because he's obviously a very good hitter and one of our best returning players. By putting him in the DH role it enables us to keep him out of the outfield and keep the stress off his arm. Also now during the game we can get him warmed up while we're on defense. He can spend time doing that and still get his at bats in."
Because of the cooler weather to open the season the series will open Friday afternoon at 3 p.m. at Plainsman Park with Saturday's game scheduled for 2 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 1:30.