It’s a new year, but the same old story for Auburn baseball. The Tigers are set to begin a season with designs on stopping an agonizing SEC Tournament drought that has cast a shadow on a program that was once one of the best in the business.
The Tigers have missed the tournament six straight seasons, a disturbing fact considering every other league team has been to the tournament at least twice in the same span. Auburn will try to lay the foundation for a run at the tournament when it opens the season at 3 p.m. today against Southeast Missouri State in Plainsman Park in Auburn.
“The people at Auburn deserve a lot more than what we’ve given them,” said first baseman Hunter Morris. “For a lot of us, this might be the last opportunity we have to do it.”
But Auburn, which finished 31-25 overall and 11-19 in the SEC last year, will have to begin its march without some of its key players. Shortstop Casey McElroy, who started all 56 games on the way to being named to a freshman All-American team last year, will miss the start of the season with a fractured finger. Auburn announced last week that outfielder Trent Mummey is out with a severely sprained ankle. They combined for 22 homers and 77 RBIs last season.
Auburn returns some of its big boppers, but there might be some change of strategy. The Tigers hit a school-record 103 homers last season, but also took themselves out of rallies by striking out 484 times.
“I do believe that those guys now understand the importance of it,” said coach John Pawlowski.
Auburn returns six starters, including .300 hitters in second baseman Justin Hargett and outfielder Brian Fletcher. Fletcher complemented last year’s .301 batting average with 17 homers. But one of the departed players is Joseph Sanders, who led Auburn with 19 home runs.
Junior college transfer Justin Fradejas will get the first chance to replace Mummey. Wes Gilmer and Dan Gamache will get a look at third base. Creede Simpson will get a shot in right.
The pitching staff returns its top winner in middle reliever Bradley Hendrix, who had seven wins with a 5.09 ERA, and Austin Hubbard, who had 12 saves.
The Tigers will start the season with a rotation of John Luke Jacobs, who was 3-4 with a 5.74 ERA, followed by veteran Grant Dayton (2-6, 5.92 ERA) and newcomer Cole Nelson, who was 4-2 with a 3.19 ERA at Des Moines Area Community College last season.