Auburn, Ala.--The John Pawlowski Era at Auburn starts Friday at 3 p.m. as the Tigers take on 2008 NCAA Tournament team Elon in the first of a three game series at Plainsman Park.
Picked by the league's coaches to finish fifth in the SEC West coming off last season's 28-28 year, the Tigers have experience and depth returning in the field, but as is always the case in the game of baseball how much success the team has will come down to how well the pitchers perform.
The good news is the return of SEC All-Freshman selection Grant Dayton (7-2, 3.89 ERA last season) on the mound as well as senior Paul Burnside, who is back and closer to full strength after a rough two years for the Tigers. Throw in talented freshman Jon Luke Jacobs and Pawlowski says he has likely got Auburn's weekend rotation for the opening series.
Coach John Pawlowski
"What we're thinking right now on Friday is Grant Dayton," Pawlowski tells Inside the Auburn Tigers. "Grant has done a really good job for us. Last year he had a really good year. He came on and pitched well, especially the second half of the season. I think he's our best option right now on Friday night. He's been out there. He's done it before.
"On Saturday we'll most likely start Jon Luke Jacobs," he notes. "Jon is a guy who just continues to emerge. He's gotten better and better. Just since the fall I've seen him make great strides. He's a strike thrower.
"Against a team like Elon you have to throw a ton of strikes because they have a bunch of ways to beat you. On Sunday we're leaning towards Paul Burnside right now. He's gotten better. He's improved. I think he certainly is a guy who has been out there before. We need to see if he can handle it again and I'm sure he can."
Because of midweek games and the need for several players in a middle relief role, Pawlowski says freshman Dexter Price and sophomore Ty Kelley have put themselves in position to get extensive work in those roles. Coming back from offseason elbow surgery to remove bone chips, Taylor Thompson could ease into that role as well. As a set-up man, junior Michael Hurst (3-5, 4.89) could be important for Auburn's fortunes in 2009.
That leaves the late inning and closer role where the Tigers were solid last season with Evan Crawford and Bryan Woodall combining for 60 appearances, 11 saves and three wins. With both gone to the professional ranks, Pawlowski says several players have the chance to move into those roles including preseason All-American first baseman Hunter Morris.
Hunter Morris could be a big part of things in the field and pen for Tigers.
"I think when we turn the game over to the bullpen you'll see guys like Bradley Hendrix (1-2, 6.04) and Michael Hurst," Pawlowksi says. "You'll have Scott Shuman (2-2, 6.07). Hunter certainly is a guy who is in the mix with Rus Harper. I think a guy who, right now if I had to say this guy is probably going to have the chance to finish the game for us, is Austin Hubbard (1-1, 6.27). Austin has done a really good job. He's got a great out pitch. We're trying to piece this whole thing together."
Auburn returns many of its position players intact from last season as Morris (.351, 11 HR, 49 RBI) mans the first base bag, fellow sophomore Justin Hargett (.278) is at second and junior Joseph Sanders (.348, 6, 52) is at third base.
In the outfield sophomores Brian Fletcher (.324, 10, 42) and Trent Mummey (.305, 4, 23) are also back and will be key components at the top of the lineup for the Tigers. In right field senior Ben Jones (.282, 1, 10), sophomore Kevin Patterson (.255, 5, 26) and junior Jamie Drinkard are expected to platoon in the field as well as possibly at the designated hitter position. That leaves two spots open.
One of those is catcher and it would have been filled without question by senior captain Ryan Jenkins, but surgery to repair a broken bone in his throwing hand will keep him out of the lineup possibly for the first month of the season. Without him the Tigers will rely on sophomore Tony Caldwell and true freshman Caleb Bowen to get the job done.
The other open spot comes at shortstop with defensive wizard Matt Hall having moved on. Freshman Casey McElroy from Boone High in Orlando won the job in the fall, but sprained his ankle on the opening day of practice in preseason. That made for anxious times for the Tigers, but he has recovered and Pawlowski says he's expected to be in the lineup on Friday.
Heading into his first season at Auburn, Pawlowski says that the excitement level is high for the team, coaching staff and everyone involved with the Tigers and that's the way it should be. Without high expectations, but the talent to make some noise, Auburn is hoping early success leads to big things in 2009.
"There are a lot of emotions going through, a lot of excitement," Pawlowski says. "Anxious to get it started. The last few days you want to get to the starting gate already and get it going. As a coach you feel like there is so much more to do, you've got to do this better or that better. The players are like, ‘Coach we've got this.' They're ready to go.
"The biggest thing you want in that opening weekend is for the guys to play under control and slow the game down...they just have to slow everything down and let the game take control," Pawlowski adds. "A lot of times guys try to do too much. That comes from experience and hopefully some of our leadership and experience will help some of our younger guys through that."
Auburn opens the 2009 season against the Elon Phoenix with a series starting on Friday at Plainsman Park.