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WEDNESDAY, JUNE 8, 2005
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BRADLEY HANDWERGER

Pitching always a fix in baseball

Tom Slater's team made it to the NCAA regional championship game in his first year as head coach of Auburn's baseball team.

Was that expected?

Certainly not, considering he inherited a team that couldn't win a Southeastern Conference series at home last year and absolutely spiraled out of control until then-coach Steve Renfroe was canned.

Nevertheless, Slater took the job, took the challenge and took the team to the postseason after a one-year hiatus.

He did it by letting his team enjoy the game. They played a fun style of baseball that seemed to relax the players. He let them run and hit and not once did he let one of his players take the blame for a loss.

Slater became a player's coach in the process.

Yes, this team overachieved.

It won games against NCAA regional No. 1 seeds LSU, Florida State, Clemson and Georgia Tech.

It won two SEC home series. Not exactly World Series winning numbers, but hey, it's two more than a year ago.

So that's an improvement.

What didn't improve, however, was the bottom of Auburn's lineup by the end of the season.

In fact, the bottom three players played a large part in keeping Auburn from moving past Florida State in two games in the Tallahassee Regional.

Other than Josh Donaldson, a freshman who played well in the postseason, the last three batters in Auburn's lineup went 5-for-21 in the Tigers' two losses to the Seminoles.

Adam Stacey, the shortstop who made the starting nine solely because of his glove, hit more air than leather.

Derek Sain, who entered the lineup when Karl Amonite got hurt midway through the Saturday night game against Florida State, came into the contest with a robust .042 batting average.

Bruce Edwards performed the best of any of them, going 2-for-6 against the Seminoles.

That's not exactly fair, though, to call out only those players.

Auburn ended the season with a .293 batting average but had four players hitting .328 or better.

The top four players on the team (Karl Amonite, Josh Bell, Clete Thomas, Tyler Johnstone), who also made up the first four in the batting order, hit 62 doubles and 31 home runs as well as combined for 188 or Auburn 326 RBIs.

What Slater must do now is get more pitching. He relied on four pitchers — two starters and two relievers — to get through the bulk of the season.

John Madden, an eighth-round draft choice by San Diego in Tuesday's Major League Baseball draft, gave Auburn its best arm out of the bullpen, going 6-2 with seven saves and a team-best 1.77 ERA.

Michael Nix, an 11th-round choice by Atlanta, had a 3.20 ERA, went 5-3 and had 13 saves. San Diego used its 13th-round draft choice on Arnold Hughey (8-4), who was Auburn's top starter with a 3.74 ERA and a team-high 98 2/3 innings, while Josh Sullivan (7-5), a fourth round pick by Colorado, was the No. 2 starter with a 4.18 ERA.

From there, the quality of the staff fell off sharply, and the Tigers need to improve that.

Slater could never find a true Sunday starter, putting TBA on every series preview for that day.

Yet, the first word that comes to mind when thinking about this year's version of Auburn is overachieving.

The team possessed relatively few stars yet found a way to win 34 games and make it as far into the postseason as any other SEC team that advanced to the NCAA tournament.

Auburn compiled a 14-7 record in one-run games and 14-18 against ranked opponents.

Slater has a lot to build upon for next year. But he's going to need a lot more pitching to do it and some consistent hitting to boot.

Bradley Handwerger Bradley Handwerger
DAILY Sports Writer

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