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February 14, 2013

O’Neal takes after idol Tim Hudson; Andrews works toward bounceback year

AthleticsAUBURN, Ala. — Standing 6-foot-1, he’s a Columbus native who hijacked the Chattahoochee Valley Community College record books and ventured his way to the Auburn baseball mound.

Sounds an awful lot like Atlanta Braves veteran Tim Hudson, a 2-time All-Star hurler.

Mike O’Neal also fits that description. Well, the stuff about representing Columbus, CVCC and Auburn, anyway. He’s still working on the whole Major League Baseball dream thing.

“It’s pretty fun to think about that,” O’Neal said. “Columbus, Chattahoochee Valley, Auburn.”

O’Neal, who on Wednesday was announced as Auburn’s No. 3 starter in this weekend’s season-opening series with Maine at Plainsman Park, thoroughly enjoyed meeting Hudson, who went to Glenwood, CVCC and Auburn, at the team’s Home Run Derby on Oct. 26, as well as a follow-up speech to the team on Jan. 29.

“He’s a great guy, and when he talked to us, it was probably the best 30 minutes of my life,” O’Neal said. “Because he’s telling us, I came from junior college, I was told ‘I wasn’t going to succeed, I was too small to play this game.’ It’s amazing to see how high he has gotten as a major league ace.”

After graduating from Pacelli, O’Neal had a monster year his freshman season at CVCC, going 11-2 with a 2.30 ERA, 110 strikeouts against just 11 walks and tossing a school-record-tying 10 complete games. Between single-season and career marks, O’Neal’s name appears 16 times in the Pirates’ record book — five more times than his idol.

“He said, ‘oh, you’re the Chattahoochee Valley kid,'” O’Neal recalled of a brief one-on-one with Hudson last month. “I said, yeah, I’m a left-handed pitcher from CVCC. He’s like, where you from? I said, Columbus. He said, wow, same place and everything. I said, yeah, I’ve followed you almost identical.”

Auburn junior outfielder Bobby Andrews is aiming for a bounceback year, recovering from wrist surgery in the offseason and trying to shake a nagging back injury at the outset of the 2013 season.

Andrews, like O’Neal, was solid in the spring of 2011, hitting .396 thanks to a three-week hot streak in April during SEC play.

But given more playing time last year, the Columbus High product saw his average slip to .252.

“I had a tough time last year getting everything clicking,” said Andrews, a speedster with sturdy bat control who hopes to eventually regain his leadoff spot in the lineup.

“This year, I’m just trying to come back with the mentality of I need to work harder, I need to get better every day. I just need to do the things that help the team out in any way possible.”

Back before high school, O’Neal and Andrews were teammates on the Columbus Intimidators, a travel club coached by Tommy Wright from 2003-05. They never faced off as players for Pacelli and Columbus — “They would never play us; they were scared,” O’Neal playfully recalls — but are reunited in orange and blue for the spring.

“It’s kind of neat to have people from your hometown that you’ve been growing up and playing with,” Andrews said. “Mike adds another left-hander to our team, which is always a good thing to have.”

Sophomore southpaw Daniel Koger starts the opener Friday, while righty Rocky McCord gets the ball in game one of Saturday’s doubleheader.

Then O’Neal makes his debut in Saturday’s nightcap, and with a month of non-conference warmups before SEC action begins March 15, he’ll remember a few simple tips Hudson gave him to keep his spot in the rotation.

“Keep the ball in the strike zone,” O’Neal said, “don’t give in to the batters, and keep throwing strikes.”

One more local joins the Tigers’ squad this spring — freshman outfielder Rock Rucker, who played his senior season at Russell County and was named the Alabama Sports Writers Association Class 5A Hitter of the year.

Rock Rucker

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