Baseball Tigers Looking For Big Things In 08

The Auburn Tigers open the baseball season on Feb. 22 and Coach Tommy Slater talks about his team heading into a new year.

Auburn, Ala.--The theme for the Auburn baseball Tigers since beginning practice last fall has been a new attitude. Following back-to-back seasons of disappointing results after strong starts, the Tigers are looking for a complete season this year.

"We've been at practice since Feb. 1 and things are going great," Coach Tommy Slater says. "The kids are excited and working hard. We're looking forward to Feb. 22 and getting the season started."

Opening the year against East Tennessee State at Plainsman Park, the Tigers have plenty to be excited about as a mix of talent veterans, up and coming performers and newcomers make up a talented Auburn team in 2008. Slater says while they've got a chance to be pretty productive on offense, the key as always will be pitching.

"We're going to need to have five starters as far as the rotation goes," Slater says. "As everyone knows Paul Burnside cracked his collarbone over the Christmas holidays so he's out for the start of the season. We did get a good health report on him last week. Hopefully we'll have him back sometime in March.

"We're moving forward," he adds. "Right now Luke Greinke, Austin Hubbard, Scott Shuman, Taylor Thompson and Cory Luckie would be the five guys that are competing for the 1-5 role as we head towards Feb. 22. Those are the five guys with Paul obviously being in the mix once he is able to pitch again."

Luke Greinke will be in a starting pitching role this season as well as seeing action in the outfield.

Playing a schedule that features 18 games in the first 22 days of the season leading up to the SEC opener against the Florida Gators on the road, the Tigers will need plenty of help on the mound to be sure. Slater says while that's a downside to the schedule, he believes the players will benefit from it because it allows them to get in a groove on the field earlier in the season.

A schedule change in the fall should also benefit this Auburn team that is expected to play as many as seven true freshmen this season in key roles. Increased practice time allowed them more experience, something Slater says is immeasurable to their development.

"The fall was tremendous for us," Slater says. "We had a six and a half week fall. We were able to be with the team a lot longer and implement a lot more things. We were able to put in all our defensive stuff and our offensive stuff and get these guys a lot more at-bats and our pitchers a lot more innings. In the past you were going 18-21 days and that's just not a lot of reps.

"You would find that come January your freshmen looked a lot better. Now these kids got so many more at-bats and intra-squad games over a six-week period there's just a lot more time together. I really enjoyed it."

Having to replace starting catcher Josh Donaldson will be a tall task for his Auburn team as well as starting second baseman Robert Brooks because of academics. Another starter expected to be back was outfielder Ross Smith, but he will miss the season because of a knee injury. In their place Slater says he believes he's got some talented players to pick up the slack.

"Behind the plate Ryan Jenkins is a junior returner that played some last year," Slater says. "At first base if we opened today would be Hunter Morris. At second base is Joseph Sanders, shortstop Matt Hall is a transfer from Arizona State and at third base would be David Cunningham.

"In the outfield Greinke plays into that mix on days he's not pitching," he adds. "If he is pitching you'll obviously have Mike Bianucci in right, in center field would be Trent Mummey, along with Greinke on days he's not pitching, and in left field is Brian Fletcher, another freshman. Ben Jones has also looked good and is a potential outfielder on days when Greinke is pitching. At DH Kevin Patterson is a kid that has really been swinging the bat well. He could DH as well as Jones and Fletcher."

Mike Bianucci is a preseason candidate for the college baseball player of the year.

With Morris, Cunningham, Mummey, Fletcher and Patterson all freshmen and Hall added to the mix as a newcomer, there is obviously a changing of the guard taking place for the Tigers in 2008. Throw in several more talented players and Slater says it gives him the depth he's been hoping for, particularly in the middle infield.

"Some other kids that have looked good, Justin Hargett has really looked good in the middle infield," Slater says. "Cunningham is coming off back surgery and he's a kid that will probably need some days off. Back surgeries are not easy to come back from. Joseph is so athletic he could bounce to third at any time. Hargett could play second base if we needed him to and he could potentially play third base as well."

Bianucci agrees that the talent level is better across the board for this year's team. A veteran of the last two squads, Bianucci says he thinks this team has a chance to do something special and there's one main reason why.

"In one word I would say depth," Bianucci says. "We've got guys backing up positions that would have started last year I think, especially in the middle infield this year with Matt Hall transferring. It was tough playing against him last year at Arizona State. I think he went 8-11 against us. Having him on our team this year just makes a big difference. He's already taken a leadership role with the team."

Auburn opens the season Feb. 22 at home against East Tennessee State with the first pitch scheduled for 3 p.m. Games follow on the 23-25 as the Tigers play the first of three four-game series this season.

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