After losing another home series last weekend to South Carolina, Auburn (30-19, 10-14) finds itself two games behind both Vanderbilt and Tennessee for the eighth and final spot in the SEC Tournament with six games remaining in the regular season schedule.
Despite having already played seven of the Top 20 teams in the country based on the RPI, Auburn's road doesn't get any easier when Georgia rolls into town for a three-game series beginning Friday night. The Bulldogs have won nine of their last 10 games, but have played the fewest games against ranked opponents of any team in the league at 13 with a record of 7-6.
A balanced Bulldog offense is led by the play of shortstop Justin Holmes. Setting himself up for All-SEC honors, Holmes is hitting .341 this season with seven home runs, 43 runs batted in and 15 stolen bases. Also providing some pop is freshman first baseman Josh Smith, who has 15 home runs and 61 RBI.
As a team Georgia is hitting .309 with 47 home runs and 105 doubles. There are currently five players in the everyday lineup hitting over .300 with veteran catcher Clint Sammons the worst of the everyday hitters at .278. Auburn Coach Steve Renfroe says that the Bulldogs present a wealth of problems because of their quality depth at the plate and on the mound.
"You look at them and go wow," Renfroe says. "It's kind of one after the other. Each guy is doing something whether it's running, on-base, slugging, RBI or home runs. They come at you a lot of different ways. On the mound they come at you with arm after arm. They keep coming at you with left-handers and right-handers."
One of the SEC's most productive pitchers takes the mound on Friday for Georgia in junior right-hander Sean Ruthven. With a record of 5-1 this season in nine starts with an ERA of 3.42, Ruthven will be a tough match-up for the Tigers. Saturday it will be sophomore righty Michale Hyle (5-1, 3.00 ERA) while Sunday's starter is veteran Paul Lubrano (5-3, 3.87).
In the bullpen set-up man Bo Lanier has been nearly unhittable with a 3-1 record and an ERA of just 1.41 in 17 appearances this season. He turns things over to closer Will Startup and he usually gets the job done. This season Startup is 4-2 with six saves and an earned run average of 2.86. As a team the Bulldogs have an ERA of 4.30.
Chris Dennis has become Auburn's closer.
While Georgia has established itself in postseason play, the job for Auburn is a simple one in terms of mathematics with two weeks left. Four wins in six games will likely get the Tigers into the NCAA Tournament if last season is any indicator. Despite not making the SEC Tournament with a conference record of 13-16-1 and a RPI rating of 32, the Florida Gators made the 2003 NCAA Tournament.
If the Tigers are able to get to 14-16 in league play they should have the criteria for a postseason berth. Currently Auburn's RPI is number 25 and with six games left against Georgia and Arkansas, both in the Top 12 in the RPI, Auburn should be easily be ahead of the numbers that Florida achieved last season.
To do that the Tigers must play better than they've done recently and that begins this weekend against Georgia. Like last week the starting rotation remains the same with Josh Bell on Friday, Arnold Hughey on Saturday and Steven Register on Sunday. This season Bell is 3-2 with a 3.68 ERA in 44 innings pitched. Hughey has been Auburn's most consistent starter with a record of 6-3, an ERA of 4.32 and a team-leading 85 1/3 innings pitched.
Although his performance wasn't a thing of beauty last week, Register's first career outing as a starter was enough to show the coaching staff that it deserved another look. This season Register is 6-0 with a 3.68 ERA in 44 innings. He has struck out 42 while walking just 12. With Register's move the bullpen has been weakened, but Renfroe says that he believes they can get the job done if they take care of the mistakes.
"Hopefully, we won't walk anybody," Renfroe says. "Really, it came down to that. We walked guys. (John) Madden has great stuff. He'll blow guys away as you've seen, but it can happen in about four seconds. He hit two guys and walked a guy. I thought Chris Dennis did well in his role and Cory (Dueitt) threw well on Sunday, but that's the first time he's thrown like that in four or five outings."
Game times for the weekend are 6:30 p.m. on Friday, 3 p.m. on Saturday and 1:30 on Sunday. Friday night's game will be followed by a free fireworks show from behind the right field wall. All three games will be shown live with Friday and Sunday on Comcast Sports Southeast while Saturday's game can be seen on Fox SportsNet South and the Sunshine Network.