Auburn, Ala.—Winners of seven of its last nine games including a series win at #12 Ole Miss, Auburn will face yet another challenge this weekend when the 8th-ranked LSU Tigers roll into Plainsman Park. Currently 13-8 on the season and 2-1 in SEC play, Auburn will be looking for its third straight series win versus LSU since 1988-1990.
It won’t be easy as LSU comes in off a strong opening weekend in league play, taking two of three from Mississippi State at home. Led by a strong pitching staff and veteran position players, LSU is a far cry from the Skip Bertman teams that depended on the home run to win games. This year’s version of the Bengal Tigers is built around one of the strongest pitching staffs in the league and Auburn Coach John Pawlowski said it all begins with Friday and Saturday starters Kevin Gausman and Ryan Eades.
“Their first two guys have been very, very dominant,” Pawlowski said. “They don’t give you many opportunities. They don’t walk people. They are around the strike zone with better than average stuff. We’ve talked to our team and told them whatever we get this weekend we’re going to have to earn it. Sometimes pitchers will give you opportunities, but these guys are very stingy with that.
“Our hitters are going to have to earn what they get this weekend. Usually you think of LSU as a power hitting, home run team, but that’s the nature of where our game is right now with the changes in the bats. It has completely changed the games. It has become an arms race and they have tremendous arms.”
That has been one of the keys for the Auburn team this year as the Tigers are hitting .311 as a team led by Ryan Tella’s .442 average. The speedy sophomore is one of four Auburn players with at least six steals on the season as the Tigers have piled up 57 stolen bases already this year. With 22 sacrifice hits as well you have the formula for success for the Tigers, playing small ball.
Struggling early in the season to make the offense work, recently Auburn has been much better at producing in the clutch. That was apparent last weekend at Ole Miss as Auburn scored two runs with two outs in the ninth on three consecutive hits to take a 3-2 win. Pawlowski said the success the Tigers have had recently only gives his team more confidence what they are doing is the right way to play.
“I think it allows players to buy into what you’re trying to do a lot quicker than it would before,” Pawlowski said. “You look up and down the lineup and, sure you have guys with power and pop, but the odds are that you’re not going to hit a home run. You have to manufacture runs. I think our team really understands it. They know about our speed and about our bunting and about finding ways to get on base and create opportunities for ourselves. They have done a good job with it.”
One of the strengths for Auburn this season has been on the mound as the Tigers enter the weekend with a team ERA of just 3.42 overall. While the starting pitching of Derek Varnadore (1-2, 4.94 ERA), Will Kendall (3-0, 1.69) and freshman Daniel Koger (1-1, 2.05) has been instrumental in that, the resurgence of Cory Luckie (1-0, 4.26) from the left-handed side out of the bullpen along with right-handers Slade Smith (0-3, 6.05) and Justin Bryant (1-0, 3.38) have been a big boost said Pawlowski.
“It’s important for our team to watch and especially for the young guys,” Pawlowski said. “They can watch how they conduct themselves and carry themselves knowing that they are going to be the guys one day. It may be this weekend. Just to have guys that have been through it is big.
“Cory Luckie, I’m so thankful for him and the opportunity he’s getting,” he added. “He’s worked hard at it. You want guys that have been through the tough times to have success. Justin Bryant is no different, the guy has had surgery. Then you look at Slade Smith. Sometimes guys go to the bullpen because they’ve gone through some adversity. Slade knows he didn’t throw the ball as well as he was capable of and goes to the bullpen and has been outstanding.”
Pitching nine scoreless innings of baseball the last four games, Auburn’s bullpen is a big part in why the Tigers have allowed their opponents to score five or fewer runs in 10 consecutive games. In those games Auburn has outscored the opposition 56-27 and had a team ERA of just 2.33. The last such run of allowing five runs or less in 10 consecutive games was in early 2004.
Auburn’s pitching will need to be good against a LSU offense that doesn’t have a ton of power, but still manages to put runs on the board. Led by the SEC’s leading hitter Raph Rhymes (.475, 26 RBI), LSU is hitting .313 as a team with five regulars hitting better than .300. The power in the order comes from Mason Katz. Hitting .365, he has four home runs, eight doubles, and a slugging percentage of .662. LSU has just nine home runs in 21 games as a team.
Game times for the weekend series are scheduled for 6 p.m. on Friday, 3 p.m. on Saturday and 1 p.m. on Sunday. There is no TV for the series.