Auburn, Ala.--Winners of seven-straight games, the Auburn Tigers (16-5, 3-0) find themselves in an unfamiliar position this weekend as they prepare to face the South Carolina Gamecocks in a three-game series at Plainsman Park. Following a sweep at Georgia, Auburn is in sole position of first place in the Western Division of the SEC for the first time since being 7-2 in the 1999 season.
To stay there will likely take winning a series against one of the hottest teams in the country. Number 14 South Carolina (17-4, 3-0) swept Tennessee last weekend to open SEC play and has won its last 11 games overall dating back to a 19-6 loss against #9 Clemson on March 7.
Making matters worse is the fact that the Gamecocks have been a thorn in the side for Auburn baseball since joining the league in 1992. Since that time Auburn has won just three series in the series (3-11) and none coming since the College World Series team of 1997.
The good news for Auburn is that this season the Gamecocks have played just two road series and both against ranked opponents. Playing at East Carolina, South Carolina lost two of three in the second series of the year. The Gamecocks also lost twice at Clemson. That’s the extent of the losses for coach Ray Tanner’s club this season, but it does give hope to the Tigers the way they’ve played recently.
Pitching well, Auburn has won seven consecutive games and has allowed a total of just 19 runs during that stretch. That includes an 8-6 win over #16 Alabama on Wednesday night in Montgomery. Winning can sometimes be a confidence thing and coach John Pawlowski said that’s what he sees out of his team at the moment.
“I think we do have a lot of confidence right now,” Pawlowski said. “This team has been tested with all of the injuries and guys playing in different positions. I think any time you can win a game like that in that kind of setting and environment, it gives the kids confidence that we can play with anybody. I still think our kids feel that weekend at Arizona State really woke us up in a sense that we realized we had a lot of work to do. We still do. We talk about that series a lot. I think we’ve matured since then. Are we a better team since then? I would hope so. There is a still a lot of baseball to be played.”
That weekend at Arizona State two weeks ago wasn’t just a wake-up call, but it signaled a different dynamic in Auburn’s pitching rotation as well with sophomore Cory Luckie moving to the Friday night spot with Cole Nelson on Saturday and the combination of Grant Daytona or Jon Luke Jacobs on Sunday.
For Luckie it has been a whirlwind return to the mound after missing all of last season because of Tommy John Surgery. Healthy and pitching well, Luckie is 1-0 this year with a 5.40 ERA, but has been solid in his three starts. He said for him it’s been a bit of a surprise to be thrown into the mix so early, but he’s thankful for the opportunity to help out the team.
“It’s really unexpected, but my arm has bounced back amazingly,” Luckie said, “I have to give credit to Dave Walsh (trainer). My arm is recovering well. It’s feeling well on the mound. It has been a lot of fun.”
Auburn will need Luckie and the rest of the pitching staff at its best because it’s unlikely the Tigers will put up 20 and 19 runs against South Carolina in a game. The top pitching staff in the league, the Gamecocks are holding opponents to a batting average of just .208 this year with a team ERA of just 3.47. They have struck out 224 batters while walking only 76. Combined with allowing just 144 hits, South Carolina’s opponents are reaching base just 29.8 percent of the time.
At the plate the Gamecocks are hitting .303 as a team with 20 home runs. Veterans such as Whit Merrifield (.352, 5 HR, 19 RBI) and Scott Wingo (.333, 3, 14) lead a balanced attack for South Carolina along with Jeffrey Jones who is hitting .378 with four homers and 17 runs batted in.
Hunter Morris is the reigning SEC Player of the Week and National Hitter of the Week.
The Tigers will counter with the league’s best offense so far this season. Auburn is hitting .352 as a team with Hunter Morris (.415, 8 HR, 32 RBI) and Brian Fletcher (.400, 8, 29) leading the way. They are two of seven Auburn starters hitting over .300 this season and every Tiger with at least seven at-bats has a home run to make 36 on the year.
Auburn’s offense could be even stronger in the coming weeks as the team continues to get healthier. Outfielder Justin Fradejas has returned to the lineup this week after missing the first three weeks because of a broken bone in his hand and his speed is a definite advantage on offense for the Tigers.
Fletcher continues to be bothered by a sore quad muscle in his leg and could again be limited to a designated hitter role this weekend with Fradejas in left field. With Justin Hargett expected to be back at second base after resting his sore shoulder, utility man Justin Bryant could be the odd man out this weekend even though he’s done well with a .290 average and 20 RBI having started in four different positions the first 21 games.
Things could become even better perhaps as early as next weekend with the return of Trent Mummey. The junior outfielder had his walking cast removed on Wednesday after suffering a foot injury before the start of the season. Pawlowski said he could get some swings in next week, but they’re shooting for a return against LSU in two weekends.
The pitching match-ups for the weekend are Luckie vs. senior right-hander Blake Cooper (3-0, 2.90 ERA) on Friday night at 6:30. Saturday’s game will be a noon start and can be seen live on CSS as well as ESPN360.com. Nelson (4-0, 3.67) will take the mound against junior right-hander Sam Dyson (1-0, 5.40) for the Gamecocks. Sunday’s 1 p.m. start will have Dayton (2-1, 5.56) up against freshman left-hander Tyler Webb (1-1, 2.53).
Premium Subscription Signup
Subscribe to Magazine Only