Baseball Tigers Open Fall Practice

Auburn, Ala--Following a 34-26 season and a berth in the NCAA Tournament, the Auburn baseball Tigers began working towards the 2003 season last week with the opening of fall practice.

Coach Steve Renfroe welcomes back five every day starters and eight of the top nine pitchers from last season. In his third year as the head man for the Tigers since taking over for Hal Baird, Renfroe says that this group really made some strides during the offseason and in individual workouts this fall.

"This will be our first time to have three classes," Renfroe tells Inside The Auburn Tigers. "This is the team when you really want to make some strides and kind of start seeing your mark on a club. You can see the older guys that have been here are used to what we are doing now. Tug (Hulett) and Chuck (Jeroloman) played all summer together. They've played over 100 games in the middle so they look like a different unit. I think you see that. It's a real positive for us."

Until last week, the majority of the time spent on baseball had been in individual workouts and the weight training side of the game. Bigger and stronger than last year, Renfroe notes this team took the offseason very seriously on and off the field and it showed in the first week of practice.

"The individual was good," he says. "We got a lot of work done with the defense and pitching. The hitting is always a little slower to come because we haven't faced live pitching. Our approach is always to let them hit live before there is any adjustments so the old guys we can do something with but the new ones, we let them get a lot of swings in. Now is the time where they'll get broken down a little bit and make adjustments.

"The weights and conditioning went real well. The first week of practice has been good. There has been some good stuff happen with the arms and I thought Friday was a real good offensive day. We scored a lot of runs that day so they've made adjustments. I think it was a good first week really."

Newcomer Karl Ammonite was part of Friday's offensive explosion with a long home run to right field. He's expected to challenge for playing time at first base and designated hitter this season. The big left-hander was one of the top junior college hitters in the country last season.

Along with the return of Hulett and Jeroloman, the Tigers also welcome back outfielders Javon Moran and Sean Gamble in addition to infielder Scott Schade and catcher Bobby Huddleston from last season. Bringing in one of the top recruiting classes in recent memory with high-profile outfielder Clete Thomas and catcher Josh Bell as the headliners, Renfroe says he's been impressed by what he's seen so far of the new guys.

"We know Karl Ammonite has got a lot of power, he showed that Friday," Renfroe notes. "He just has to do some work on the mechanics, but he has some juice in his hands. Clete Thomas is strong and he can run and throw. That's why he has a fifth-round draft pick. I think he's an impact player. Josh Bell has an awful lot of ability. He'll remind a lot of people of David Ross when he throws. He's got power, he just has some work to do offensively."

Outfielder Clete Thomas could play any of the three outfield spots and could force a move of Javon Moran from center field to left because of his arm strength.

While the need may be less in the pitching rotation with starters Colby Paxton, Eric Brandon and Levale Speigner returning along with top setup man Arnold Hughey, who is expected to challenge for a starting spot this year, that didn't stop the Tigers from signing one of the top pitching classes in recent seasons. Getting quality arms from both the right and left side, Renfroe says they have done well so far this fall.

"Chris Dennis has been really good on the mound," he notes. "He's sharp and he'll contribute right away. Daniel Forrer has great stuff, I think. He's just going to have to work on locating and those things. He threw very well on Monday and his stuff is real good. I think he'll have a chance to be a dominant type guy from the left side. He's the kind of guy you bring in for strikeouts. Those are the guys that have really shown an awful lot of ability. Grant Cardwell is a lefty that will have to pitch off his breaking ball and change-up and location. He's just going to need to get a little more physical.

Renfroe also has high praise for sophomore closer Steven Register and junior pitcher Cory Dueitt, who both struggled at times last season. Register struggled with an injury, but has come back a little bigger and stronger than when he arrived last fall. That has allowed him to be a dominant force this fall in two outings. Dueitt had what Renfroe describes as his best outing in memory Monday and he says that if the Hoover native can keep it up for three weeks he'll be in the running for a shot at starting when the team opens play next February.

The Tigers will continue their practice schedule throughout the fall with practices beginning each day at 2:30 p.m. They feature an intra-squad game of some sorts just about everyday along with base running and defensive drills. Saturday night they will be hosts to the Canadian National Team in a practice game at Plainsman Park. They open the season Feb. 7, 8 and 9 with a three-game series against Virginia Commonwealth at home.

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