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Top 25 Countdown: No. 23 Auburn

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Top 25 Countdown: No. 23 Auburn
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John Pawlowski did a fantastic job in his second season with the Tigers. Can he do more in 2011?

Times sure have changed for the Auburn baseball program.

Just two years ago, in coach John Pawlowski's inaugural campaign, the Tigers were considered an afterthought in the SEC race after again failing to reach the postseason.

The Tigers finally turned the tide last season when they put together a solid regular season campaign, reached the SEC tournament for the first time since 2003, hosted an NCAA Regional and finished the year with a fantastic 43-21 record.

Now they get an opportunity to go through a season with some expectations.

Auburn has three significant holes to fill at the plate, but still is in good shape with the return of eight hitters that earned much playing time last season.

The pitching staff will determine how the Tigers fair in the regular season and beyond. They ended last season with just a 5.00 ERA and were inconsistent both in the starting rotation and bullpen.

AU could take another step forward if its pitching staff rises to the occasion. If not, another NCAA Regional appearance is the best-case scenario.

Either way, the Tigers are just glad to again be talking postseason.

Projected starting lineup

An asterisk (*) indicates a returning player

C Tony Caldwell*
1B Kevin Patterson*
2B Justin Hargett*
SS Casey McElroy*
3B Dan Gamache*
LF Justin Bryant*
CF Justin Fradejas*
RF Creede Simpson*
DH Brooks Beisner

SP Cory Luckie*
SP Slade Smith*
SP Andrew Morris
RP Bradley Hendrix*
CP Ethan Wallen/Justin Bryant/Zach Blatt

Offense

Auburn doesn't have the big bats of Hunter Morris, Brian Fletcher and Trent Mummey, but that may not matter as the season progresses.

The Tigers still will have a productive offense as they welcome back Tony Caldwell, Kevin Patterson, Justin Hargett, Casey McElroy, Dan Gamache, Justin Bryant, Justin Fradejas and Creede Simpson.

Gamache is the top returning hitter after finishing last season with a .365 average, eight homers and 37 RBIs. Fradejas, meanwhile, batted .358 with three homers and 33 RBIS, and is expected to have another productive campaign.

Bryant hit .323 with five homers and 32 RBIs, Caldwell hit .349 with 10 homers and 41 RBIs, Patterson hit .315 with 16 homers and 33 RBIs, McElroy hit .325 with nine homers and 43 RBIs and Creede Simpson hit .308 with five homers and 31 RBIs.

Power production is expected to be down this season, but the lineup will be solid from top-to-bottom.

Pitching

All eyes are on the pitching staff as the season nears.

The Tigers were inconsistent on the way to an NCAA Regional last season and finished the campaign with an unimpressive 5.00 ERA. That mark must improve if they aspire to take a step forward this season.

It begins and ends with the weekend rotation, which is led by Cory Luckie and Slade Smith.

Luckie had a 5.91 ERA in 70 innings last season. He also struck out 57 and walked 23 and teams hit .286 off him. Smith, meanwhile, had a 4.65 ERA in 60 innings. He struck out 42 and walked 14 and teams batted .297 against him.

Highly touted junior college transfer Andrew Morris rounds out the rotation.

In the bullpen, Bradley Hendrix is a key cog to watch after making 22 appearances last season and compiling a 5.35 ERA in 33 2/3 innings. Ethan Wallen, Justin Bryant and Zach Blatt also are expected to log significant innings.

Wallen is a junior college transfer with experience, Bryant made just one appearance on the mound last season and Blatt made 20 appearances and had a 5.40 ERA in 33 1/3 innings.

Other arms to watch include Sean Ray and Jon Luke Jacobs. Ray made 26 appearances last season and had a 3.72 ERA in 36 1/3 innings. Jacobs only had a 7.22 ERA in 33 2/3 innings.

Shoes to fill

As with every team, the Tigers have some holes to fill this season, starting with former starting pitcher Grant Dayton and top reliever Austin Hubbard.

Dayton had a solid '10 campaign for the Tigers, going 8-3 with a 4.36 ERA in 95 innings. He also struck out 69 and walked 19 and limited teams to a .269 average. Hubbard is equally a tough loss because he gave the Tigers a top bullpen arm. Hubbard earned 10 saves in 26 appearances last season and had a 2.44 ERA in 48 innings. Teams hit just .239 off him.

Can the pitching staff have a solid year without those two? Time will tell.

Offensively, the Tigers are expected to have another productive campaign. However, equalling the production of Hunter Morris, Trent Mummey, Ryan Jenkins and Brian Fletcher won't be easy.

Morris lead the team last season with a .386 average, 23 homers and 76 RBIs while Mummey hit .366 with 17 homers and 54 RBIs, Jenkins hit .365 with seven homers and 38 RBIs and Fletcher hit .357 with 22 homers and 75 RBIs.

Even with some holes to fill, the Tigers enter the season in good shape.

Must step up

After having issues on the mound in key situations last season, there's no question the pitching staff, namely Cory Luckie, Slade Smith and Bradley Hendrix must step up.

Luckie finished last season with an ERA over five, Smith had an ERA over 4.50 and Hendrix had an ERA over five in significant innings of work.

The Tigers will go the way of their pitching staff this season. Luckie and Smith must begin weekends on the right foot, while Hendrix is expected to successful bridge the gap between the starters and closer.

Impact newcomer

Auburn won't have to utilize many newcomers at the plate this season, but keep an eye on Zach Alvord, Brooks Beisner and Tyler Dial.

Alvord was one of the top hitters in Georgia last season, but chose to attend college despite getting drafted in the 18th round by the Braves. Alvord is sitting behind Casey McElroy on the depth chart, but is expected to earn significant playing time.

Beisner, a junior college transfer, is a candidate to start in the outfield and designated hitter, while Dial is on the small side physically but will help the Tigers from a depth standpoint.

On the mound, the Tigers have high hopes for junior college transfer and right-handed pitcher Andrew Morris. The Tigers will begin the weekend with Cory Luckie and Slade Smith, and will finish it with Morris taking the mound.

Morris tops out at 92 MPH but can hover in the 87-91 range with his fastball.

Also keep an eye on junior college transfer Ethan Wallen.

Postseason prognosis

The Tigers are expected to have a very productive offense, which in a year many SEC pitching staffs are down, definitely works into their favor.

Look for Auburn to have a solid SEC campaign. But what about their chances past the conference and conference tournament portion of their schedule?

The Tigers will be able to keep up or best most teams at the plate, but like last season, the biggest key will be what the pitching staff does in the postseason. AU struggled in NCAA Regional play last season, and that cost them a chance at a super regional appearance.

Auburn will make an NCAA Regional. More only will be accomplished with improved arms.