Season Of Ups And Downs Comes To An End

The Auburn Tigers did some good things in 2007 but there weren't enough of them to outweigh the bad in a frustrating year on the diamond.

Auburn, Ala.--The 2007 season wasn't one to remember for the Auburn Tigers, but they managed to finish on a positive note over the weekend with a series win over the Kentucky Wildcats while narrowly missing a sweep to finish out the regular season.

Finishing 31-25 overall and 10-20 in SEC play, the Tigers will miss the SEC Tournament in Hoover for the fourth consecutive year, something nobody thought was possible after a blazing hot 18-3 start to the year.

When you look back at the year, it's easy to see now why the Tigers struggled against the tough conference schedule. Fighting injuries and illnesses to key players such as Mike Bianucci and Paul Burnside, without left-handed hitter Russell Dixon for the season after breaking a bone in his hand in practice before the opener, as well as counting on as many as five freshmen in an everyday role, Auburn lost its first eight games in league play and never recovered. Although they finished 10-12 the rest of the way, it was too little and much too late for the Tigers to make a run at postseason play.

In the end the season was about a lack of quality pitching in league play with the exception of Burnside and relievers Brett Butts and Johnny Thompson. Solid in non-conference action against some quality opponents, the pitching staff couldn't keep it together once SEC play started. In 30 games Auburn's team ERA was 5.74 with 31 home runs allowed. Factoring in non-conference action, Auburn's ERA goes down over a full run to 4.59 and the Tigers gave up just 11 home runs in 26 games.

Even without Burnside for the last month of the regular season, Auburn showed an improvement on the mound from 2006. Finishing with a team ERA of 5.15 the year before, Auburn gave up over a half-run less this season than last. The opponents' batting average also went down from .288 last season to a more respectable .276 in 2007.

The improvements on the mound were overshadowed by the improvements at the plate despite true freshman Robert Brooks, Ross Smith, Joseph Sanders and Dustin Spruill getting a ton of at-bats along with redshirt freshman Eric Skinner. In 2007, the Tigers hit .295 as a team with 395 runs scored, 104 doubles and 38 home runs. The average is the highest for an Auburn team since the 2003 season. In 2006 Auburn hit .276 with 283 runs, 104 doubles and 35 home runs. Scoring runs is the name of the game and the Tigers improved in that category by over 100 runs, a positive heading into next season.

While the positives are there, there are also plenty of negatives. The first also comes at the plate where the Tigers struck out 394 times on the year while walking 234 times. It is an improvement over 2006 when the numbers were 397 and 174, respectively, but it's still way too strikeouts for a team looking to make a step up to the next level in the SEC.

Defense is also still a major concern as the Tigers committed 91 errors, one more than in 2006. Much of that can be contributed to playing a large group of freshmen with 40 coming from that class alone, but that is an obvious area that has to be improved going into the 2008 season.

The jump will have to come without several key players for the Tigers. Seniors Bruce Edwards and Chris Dennis will both be missed, not only for their play but because of their leadership. The biggest losses will likely come in the middle of the Auburn lineup as junior catcher Josh Donaldson is expected to be a high draft choice after hitting .349 with 11 home runs and 54 RBI in 2007.

Josh Donaldson is considered a Top 50 talent by baseball scouts this season.

A draft eligible sophomore, Mike Bianucci is also a strong possibility to turn pro after this season after batting .326 with a team-high 14 homers and 51 runs batted in. Throw in the possibility of losing reliever Brett Butts as well as fellow draft-eligible sophomore Luke Greinke, although neither will be taken as high as Donaldson and Bianucci, and you could have some serious holes to fill in 2008.

A strong sophomore class next year will be counted on to pick up the slack. This season the group more than held its own as it got indoctrinated into SEC play. Leading the pack was Sanders. A mainstay in the lineup after easing into the year, Sanders finished second on the team with a .333 average and added 14 doubles, three home runs and 33 RBI. A regular in right field, Smith did his share of good things as well as he hit .288 with 12 doubles, two home runs and 23 RBI.

Perhaps the best performance came from Brooks. Auburn's only player to start every game this season, the Enterprise native hit .281 with 11 doubles, two home runs, 36 RBI and 16 stolen bases in 21 attempts. His RBI total is the highest for an Auburn second baseman since Tug Hulett drove home 39 in 2003.

Things won't get any easier for Coach Tommy Slater and the Tigers in 2008 with Florida State coming back on the schedule for an early four-game series, with two each in Auburn and Tallahassee, but a talented base to build on as well as a good recruiting class should make for an improvement. There is little doubt that the pressure is on to make it to Hoover and a NCAA Regional next season for a program wanting to get back to the elite level once again.

Player of the Year: This is a tough call with several deserving candidates, but senior center fielder Bruce Edwards is my pick just ahead of Josh Donaldson. Playing a Gold Glove caliber center field, Edwards took away a boatload of runs this season with his defense while also serving as the catalyst for the Auburn offense. Hitting .328 with 53 runs scored, Edwards stole 28 bases in 33 attempts to tie Dom Fucci for the third-best season in Auburn history.

Pitcher of the Year: Despite missing a full month after straining his bicep, sophomore Paul Burnside is the runaway winner of this award. He finished 7-1 to lead the team in wins and also had an ERA of just 3.06. His Friday night wins over LSU, South Carolina and Alabama were among the top performances for an Auburn pitcher this season.

Newcomer of the Year: It's difficult to choose from among the very good class of players, but Joseph Sanders gets the call because of his performance in SEC play. In conference action the Millbrook native hit .316 with a grand slam, a team-high seven doubles, and 17 RBI in only 24 games.

Stock Report: The season saw Auburn win just one more conference game in 2007 than the year before, but overall the Tigers improved nine games to finish with 31 wins overall. The improvements made for a better season, but still not up to par for the Auburn baseball program.

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