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Q & A with Auburn hitting coach Gabe Gross

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Q & A with Auburn hitting coach Gabe Gross

By Nubyjas Wilborn | nwilborn@al.com
6-7 minutes

Auburn’s hitting coach Gabe Gross beamed brightly on Thursday before Sonny DiChiara, Brody Moore, Cole Foster, Mike Bello, and the rest of the Tigers piled on the bus headed to the airport. No.14 seed Auburn is in Corvallis, Oregon, for Super Regional action against No. 3 seed Oregon State.

Whoever wins the best of the three-game series this weekend will go to the College World Series in Omaha. Two weeks ago, it seemed unlikely Auburn would get this far when the Tigers ended the regular season loss against Kentucky and got bounced by the Wildcats in the SEC Tournament.

“Our guys were maybe a little tired toward the end of the year,” Gross said. I’m not sure, but I know that coming back here after the SEC tournament gave us a chance to get our legs back under us. We took advantage of the early exit to take a deep breath and recalibrate. They were really fresh and ready to play last weekend.”

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Auburn struggled to score runs and missed slugger Cole Foster in the lineup. Foster hit a home run from each side of the plate in one inning during his first game back. Auburn routed Southeast Louisiana on its way to scoring 51 runs in three games.

“Cole does multiple things,” Gross said. “He gives us another power threat. We love him as a switch-hitter because he changes our lineup. He’s got a strong skill set.”

Auburn faces one of the best pitchers in college baseball on Saturday at 9 pm CT on ESPN 2 when Cooper Hjerpe and his 10-2 record take the mound. Gross talked with us about facing Hjerpe and several aspects of Auburn’s journey to the program’s third Super Regional in five years.

What makes Hjerpe so tough to compete against?

He’s one of the best pitchers in college baseball. He’s very difficult to square up on his fastball, and he hides it well. The ball explodes out of his hand and rides up in the zone only slightly. We know what Vanderbilt looked like, and they couldn’t come out of that region. We have a ton of respect for them. They’re a great baseball team.

When did you realize Sonny’s skills would translate to the SEC?

We caught glimpses in the fall. He had as hot a fall start as anyone could have, and we couldn’t get him out as a staff. You never know because plenty of guys are great in the fall but don’t produce when the season starts.

But you know, January rolled around, and he was the same guy, and once the season started, it was evident that he was going to be challenging to get out for anyone.

He can take a big swing and hit a ball out of the park early in the count. He can also dial it down with two strikes and get on base. I’m most impressed by how his eyes work. He’s straightforward. He swings at strikes, and he takes balls. It’s a simple thing to say, but it ain’t easy to do.

He did a great job early of not getting frustrated early when teams stopped pitching to him. As the season went on, he started getting anxious, and he had to learn from that.

I told him that Frank Thomas got walked over 70 times during his last season here. I said I know you’re getting walked a lot, but you haven’t caught Frank yet. Frank was great because he never changed his approach when pitchers didn’t give him anything to hit. Sonny has learned that, and we see the results.

Many teams try to pick at him by throwing a bunch of offspeed stuff, but if it’s off the plate, he will take the pitch, but he’s still always ready for the fastball.

He might get two or maybe three strikes thrown to him a game. Many players never get pitched to as tough as Sonny, but he comes through whenever he gets a strike or a hanging slider.

Brody Moore won the MVP of the regional. What makes him unique as a player?

Brody, man. He knows the game. He’s at his best when he feels threatened, as nobody believes in him, or like somebody’s slighted when there’s a challenge. He loves it when somebody’s like trying to take his position or a spot like that. That gets him going, man, his competitive gene is through the roof, and that’s what makes it really when you get around to ultra baseball stuff. His competitive gene is through the roof. That’s what makes him go.

You guys stretched out a lot of at-bats over the weekend? What’s the secret?

We work on two-strike hitting a lot. It’s a huge emphasis for our offense. It doesn’t always result in us not striking out, although sometimes it does keep us from striking out. If you’re good at fouling off pitches, it can run up the pitch count and could help draw more walks. If you’re good at it, it’ll give you more confidence to hunt for your pitch early in the count.

We’re at our best when we’re grinding out at-bats and being difficult to strike out even when it’s 0-2 count. But we also were ready when we got the pitch we wanted to hit early in the at-bat. We didn’t swing at pitches that weren’t our pitch early in the count and make stupid outs.

What will it take to beat Oregon State?

It’s going to take some discipline from an offensive point of view Hjerpe especially likes to pitch to both sides of the plate and up in the zone, and I don’t think you’ll be able to cover all of it. We have an approach to plan that you stick to forcing the ball down in the zone and strikes and then not try to do too much. Suppose you try to lift a guy like that; you’re going to be underneath everything all night long. I think you got to make the routine play. And when we have chances to come up with a big hit and a big moment, we have to make it happen. If we make them earn everything they get, we’ll have a good chance.

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Gabe is from my hometown -- the Circle City, Dothan, Alabama.  Not surprisingly, we have 2 Dothan boys on our pitching staff and both are studs.   WDE. 

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Gabe is such a great coach.There have been times when Auburn baseball fans did not appreciate him. If you bring him the talent.....he will get it going. I have been a fan since he played at Auburn, and I hope he stays around for a while.

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