Winning just twice in its last 10 games overall and getting swept on the road last weekend at Mississippi State, the Vols are in the same boat as Auburn this weekend and that's needing to win to stay in the hunt for the SEC Tournament in Hoover.
After starting the conference season 6-3 with series wins over Ole Miss, LSU and Mississippi State, Auburn seemed to be in perfect position to make a run not only at the postseason but for a division title. Since that time however things have gone south as the Tigers have been unable to get clutch hits and have struggled on the mound.
"It's important for us, for a lot of different reasons, to play well down the stretch," Pawlowski said. "I was encouraged by what I saw Tuesday at Troy. Hopefully some of that will carry over. I know our players are anxious and want to get out there and play some good old fashioned Auburn Tigers baseball. This is a weekend that is important for our team and important for what we're trying to do as a program. We're anxious and looking forward to competing this weekend." "I thought it was really good," Pawlowski said. "We got off to an early lead. Creede Simpson hits a home run that gets us going a little bit. I thought Trey Cochran-Gill did what he's capable of doing. He went out there and had seven or eight ground balls. Varnadore came in and did a really good job as did Justin Bryant. We pitched, made the routine plays, and found ways to get quality at-bats. I think it was very important for our team."
One of the keys to the win was the pitching of Cochran-Gill in the start and Varnadore in relief. Coming off the shortest outing of his career last Friday night when he lasted just three innings and gave up seven earned runs, the senior made some adjustments with the help of the coaching staff and was lights out against the Trojans. Pitching three innings, he didn't allow a hit and walked just one. Pawlowski said it was good to see Varnadore comfortable out of the bullpen and it's something that could continue this weekend.
"We wanted to try to do a couple of different things," Pawlowski said. "He's worked so hard in trying to have the kind of success he's capable of having. We did some work with him mechanically and told him we were going to move him and try to get him an inning or two innings in the midweek to try to iron out a few things. He was the best we've seen him in quite a while on Tuesday."
Because of that Auburn will change up its starting rotation this weekend as senior Jon Luke Jacobs (5-1, 2.86 ERA) will get the call on Friday night. Tennessee's Friday night starter Zack Godley (4-2, 3.52) has also been scratched from the opening night as well and is questionable for the weekend. The Vols will go with Nick Williams (2-4, 3.13) in the first game opposite Jacobs.
On Saturday freshman Daniel Koger (2-4, 2.95) will move up a day in the rotation for the Tigers and will face Tennessee's Robbie Kidd (2-1, 4.02) while both teams are listed as TBA for Sunday's series finale. Pawlowski said Varnadore could get the start in game three if he's not used in relief either of the first two days, or they could use the same strategy employed on Tuesday night with Cochran-Gill getting the call. He added they likely won't make that decision until Sunday.
A team that has pitched well at times this season with a team ERA of 3.61 under first-year coach Dave Serrano, the Vols have been anything but well at the plate this season. Hitting just .253 as a team with no regular over .300, Tennessee has just 14 combined home runs as a team with five coming from standout reliever Drew Steckenrider (.221, 5 HR, 17 RBI). Leading the way is standout freshman Will Maddox. Hitting .299, he has a home run and 16 RBI this season.
On the mound Steckenrider has been very good with a 4-3 record and an ERA of just 1.62. If Tennessee gets a lead any time after the fifth inning look for the two-way standout to try to take it home for the Vols. In 21 appearances this season he has 66 strikeouts and 25 walks in 50 innings. Opponents are hitting just .157 this season against him.
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 television for the series.