Tigers Ready To Play Ball

Auburn's baseball team opens the season against East Tennessee State on Friday at Plainsman Park.

Auburn, Ala.--The waiting is now almost over for the Auburn baseball Tigers as the 2008 season gets kicked off this Friday with a four-game series against East Tennessee State at Plainsman Park over the weekend and into Monday.

With the start date for the season pushed back nearly two weeks and extra practice time in the fall and spring, Coach Tommy Slater says it has made for a big build-up for this coming season.

"The players and coaches, we're all ready to see a different jersey," Slater says. "The practices have been great. We've had more time to prep for this season than any other time with the new rules having the 45-day window in the fall to be together.

"We weren't allowed to start team practice until the first of February, but we were back in school the eighth (January) with bullpens and group work. We're as prepared as we've probably ever been going into a season. I think everybody is excited and looking forward to playing."

The biggest question mark for this Auburn team heading into the season is on the mound as number one starter Paul Burnside is on the shelf after being injured in December. With plenty of arms to choose from, Slater says that this weekend will have Luke Greinke as the starter on Friday, true freshman Cory Luckie on Saturday and sophomores Taylor Thompson and Austin Hubbard on Sunday and Monday as well as two veterans in the closer role if needed.

"Those will be the four starters this weekend," Slater says. "That will put Shuman (Scott Shuman) in the bullpen for this weekend and Grant Dayton. Those are the other two guys we've been training as starters. Both of those guys' pitch counts have been elevated in practice so they wouldn't be limited to an inning or two should either come in and pitch. Both could go four innings. As middle relievers would be Shuman, Dayton, Michael Hurst, Sean Ray and Bradley Hendrix.

"On the back end of the game, from the seventh on, you're talking about Evan Crawford and Bryan Woodall. The neat thing with those two is we've got two different looks, kind of like we had in 2005 when we had John Madden and Mike Nix. We've got the power lefty and sinker, slider right-hander. I think there will be days when you might see one guy in the seventh and the eighth innings and one guy in the ninth. There might be other days when it's the other way around. The good thing is we've got both of them."

Austin Hubbard gets the call on Monday compiling a 1-0 record in 2007 in 11 appearances with five starts.

A two-way player who will also see some time in the field, Greinke gives the Tigers several options on days that he doesn't pitch. Slater says that where he plays in the field may be determined on who has the hot or cold bat on a given day.

"The day Luke pitches I'm not going to hit him," Slater says. "I'm just going to let him pitch on those days. On the days he doesn't pitch, with his versatility, he can DH, he can play center field, he can play left field, and if we needed him to he could go to first base. He's so versatile he can play a lot of different spots. Really it's just a matter of who's swinging a hot bat that may determine on where he plays, who we feel like taking out on that given day."

With Greinke starting on Friday, the Tigers are expected to have junior Ryan Jenkins behind the plate, true freshman Hunter Morris at first base, sophomore Joseph Sanders at second, junior transfer Matt Hall at shortstop and redshirt freshman David Cunningham at third base. Slater says there is also a chance that true freshman Justin Hargett will see some time in the lineup on the opening weekend.

"In our infield the thing you'll see is Cunningham is not going to play every day," Slater says. "His back is not going to allow him to do that, and Hargett has done a really good job. He's looked really good. The only shifting you'll see in the infield is there will be days when Joseph Sanders is our third baseman and days when he's our second baseman. He's done both throughout the fall and intra-squads. He's done really, really well. We feel comfortable with him at both places. He won't come out of the lineup, but he would be a guy swinging from one to the other."

In the outfield the Tigers will go with junior Mike Bianucci in right field and a pair of true freshmen round out the threesome with Trent Mummey in center field and Brian Fletcher in left. Even with so many new faces in the batting order, Slater says he's currently got a pretty good idea of what he wants to do when the Tigers take the field for the first time on Friday.

"For opening day I'll probably look at Mumme, Fletcher, Bianucci, Morris, Sanders and Patterson (Kevin Patterson) in the six-hole," Slater says. "If Hargett is going to be playing second base I would think Hall in the seventh hole, Jenkins in the eight and Hargett in the nine. If Cunningham is in the lineup he may hit seventh or we may keep that spot at nine with the two players rotating in that spot."

Led by standout first baseman Anthony Russell (.335, 10 HR, 44 RBI) and pitcher Brandon Langston, the Buccaneers come into the 2008 season looking for improvement after a 26-29 record in 2007. Slater says that being familiar with ETSU from his days in the Southern Conference, he knows to expect a very fundamental and active baseball team this weekend.

"I know they're coached really well," Slater says. "We played against each other. He played at The Citadel. ETSU was in the Southern Conference, but not any more. We competed against them when I coached at VMI. He runs a great program. Their number one starter Langston put up some good numbers for them a year ago. I think he had an ERA in the threes. They'll play an aggressive brand of baseball, a lot of bunting and stealing bases and running, which is good because I like to play teams like that because it prepares your own club."

Game times for the games are 3 p.m. every day Friday-Monday.

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