Auburn, Ala.—Following an 0-6 start in SEC play and a rough loss at Troy on Tuesday night, the Auburn Tigers are looking for a spark as rival Alabama comes to town for a three-game series at Plainsman Park beginning Thursday night at 6 p.m.
Auburn Coach John Pawlowski is hoping that spark comes from junior pitcher Conner Kendrick as he’ll get his first start of the season in the series opener against Alabama. The most productive and consistent pitcher for the Tigers this season with a 2-0 record and an ERA of 1.46, Kendrick says he’s excited to get the opportunity to put Auburn back on the winning track.
“It’s a different role, but I have been in that role in the past,” Kendrick says of his time at junior college. “I’m kind of used to it and I’m excited for it.
“I think it’s a good opportunity,” he adds. “I hope it turns out for the best. This is important because we need to get back on a streak again. I feel like if we can get the ball rolling it will have an effect and we can keep rolling.”
Kendrick’s addition to the starting rotation means a change for the first time this season in one of the first two spots as Michael O’Neal (4-2, 2.78 ERA) remains the starter in game two on Friday. Game three is listed as TBA for the Tigers with Rocky McCord (2-1, 4.30 ERA), Daniel Koger (0-2, 4.41 ERA) and Will Kendall (0-1, 9.64 ERA) all possibilities. Pawlowski says getting Kendrick into the weekend rotation is something that just makes sense right now.
“When we recruited Conner Kendrick the goal was for him to be a weekend starter,” Pawlowski says. “In the fall he had a little bit of a health issue, but he’s healthy now. When we came back in January we started him in the bullpen to try to build his pitch count up. We wanted to eventually get him into the rotation. He certainly deserves an opportunity.
“When we talked about it the last four outings he’s had, he came into the game when we were behind,” he adds. “You look at his numbers and if he’s one of our top pitchers it seems like you would want to get him out there with at least an even slate. We just had to look at a lot of different things, but coming into the last four games being behind was a major factor.”
Getting rolling is easier said than done for an Auburn team that has hit the skids the last two weeks with only wins over Alabama State and Southern Miss in the last nine games. During that stretch the offense has faltered while the pitching staff has struggled early in games to keep the Tigers close.
With a batting average that is down to .268, Auburn has looked at some changes in the lineup in recent games with Mitchell Self moving into the starting role at second base in place of Jordan Ebert. Currently second on the team with a .317 average and the team leader with two home runs, Pawlowski says Ebert’s bat is going to stay in the lineup, but whether or not he takes back over at second remains to be seen.
The key to Auburn’s offense may be getting junior center fielder Ryan Tella back into form at the plate. Hitting just .275 on the year, Tella has really struggled over the last three weeks. Over his last 11 games Tella is just 8-42 at the plate with five RBI and 14 strikeouts. Things have gotten even worse during the four-game losing streak as he is just 1-16 with six K’s. Getting the speedy Tella unwrapped is a huge piece of the puzzle for Auburn’s offensive attack this weekend.
Alabama (16-10, 5-1) will send right-hander Charley Sullivan (2-1) to the mound on Thursday, left-hander John Keller (3-2) on Friday and Spencer Turnbull (2-1) on Saturday. Game times for the weekend are 6 p.m. on both Thursday and Friday and 3 p.m. on Saturday. Saturday’s game can be seen on CSS.
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