Marshall: Auburn Baseball Frustrations

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about the Auburn baseball program.

Auburn baseball is in a place it hasn't been since before Hal Baird arrived as head coach in 1984. And it's not a good place.

Baird left a strong and vibrant program after the 2000 season. It stayed that way under Steve Renfroe through 2003. Since then, things have been rough, to say the least. The Tigers haven't played in the Southeastern Conference Tournament since that 2003 season. Odds are they won't play in it this season either.

The grumbling about third-year coach Tom Slater's job grows a little louder with each loss. The one who matters, athletic director Jay Jacobs, isn't saying anything.

So is it reasonable to suggest Slater's job should be in jeopardy?

It certainly isn't reasonable at this point. This season isn't over yet. There is no way to adequately judge anything until it is. If it goes like it has gone, it'll end in disappointment.

But that doesn't mean it's time to change coaches.

Consider: *Never in modern history has an Auburn coach in a major sport had fewer than four years to build his program. Slater has had just two recruiting classes, both recognized as outstanding.

*On the days freshman Taylor Thompson is the starting pitcher, Auburn frequently has six freshmen in the starting lineup. There are exceptions, but most freshmen, no matter how talented, are frightfully inconsistent.

*Cleanup hitter Mike Bianucci has missed all or part of three SEC series with injuries.

*Just as sophomore pitcher Paul Burnside was hitting his stride, winning three straight Friday night starts, he suffered a strained bicep. He didn't pitch last weekend against Arkansas and won't pitch this weekend against Mississippi State.

*Infielder David Cunningham, the freshman Slater expected to contribute more than any other, had surgery before the season and is being redshirted.

*After making dramatic strides in Slater's first two seasons, junior Josh Donaldson has struggled at the plate in SEC play. Same goes for Bianucci, who was an All-SEC choice as a freshman last season.

There can be no argument that Slater, widely known as a top-notch recruiter, has significantly improved the talent level. But experience can't be recruited. It has to be earned.

This season has been hard to take for a lot of folks because of the way it started. Against a challenging preconference schedule, the Tigers won 18 of 21 games. They were ranked as high as No. 10 nationally. Then SEC play started and everything changed. Going into Saturday night's game at Mississippi State, they have lost 15 of 22 league games.

The hole the Tigers dug themselves in losing their first eight SEC games is probably going to be too deep. They're 7-7 since then. If they'd played at the same level those first eight games, if they'd not been swept by relatively weak Georgia and Florida teams, they'd be on their way to Hoover and to a regional.

Slater was an assistant under Baird when Auburn baseball was at its best. He knows where Auburn baseball has been and where it can go. He'll be the first to tell you that where it is now is not acceptable.

But Slater isn't one to moan and groan. Others talk about Auburn's inexperience. He doesn't. Others wring their hands over the inherent advantages of programs at schools with lottery scholarships. He doesn't. He just grits his teeth and goes to work.

Slater is certainly frustrated, but he is convinced Auburn baseball can return to its glory days, and he is convinced he can be part of getting it there. Though he didn't get his first team to the SEC Tournament, he got it to the championship round in a regional. That should count for something.

At a time when the athletic department and the university as a whole were in turmoil, Slater took on a difficult job in 2004. I hope he gets to finish it.


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