This Week Counts In Tide Vs. Tigers

This time it counts. Last week, Alabama seemed to be riding high. Then came an exhibition game of sorts, Alabama and Auburn meeting in the Capital City Classic in Montgomery. The game had been scheduled for earlier in the spring, but rained out and rescheduled for last week.

Alabama and Auburn are both members of the Southeastern Conference Western Division, but the game scheduled in Montgomery was a non-counting game as far as the SEC is concerned. Good thing since Alabama lost that game with some very poor [play.

The bad thing is, that poor play seems to have carried over. And this weekend Auburn is coming to Tuscaloosa for games that do count.

Although Alabama is ranked 23rd in the nation, Bama is struggling. Alabama and Auburn will meet at 6 p.m. CDT Friday at Sewell-Thomas Stadium in a game that will be regionally telecast by Comcast Sports Southeast (CSS). The teams will meet again at 4 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

Both teams enter the weekend following SEC series losses last week and a midweek loss on Wednesday. Alabama (17-7, 2-4) has lost six of its last seven games after a 16-1 start to the 2010 season. The Crimson Tide was swept at Arkansas last weekend and suffered a 6-4 loss at UAB on Wednesday. Auburn (17-8, 4-2 SEC) lost a home series to South Carolina last weekend and fell 5-4 at Troy on Wednesday night.

Alabama Coach Mitch Gaspard said, "Obviously in the SEC it seems like every weekend as it approaches gets bigger and bigger. Right now, we're struggling. We've lost six of seven games and certainly this weekend we need to right the ship and get our offense going. It's been an offensive club where we have had a tough time delivering some big hits in key situations, particularly the middle of the lineup has been scuffling the last week and a half in those spots. We just continue to work and improve those areas. This is an opportunity for us this weekend to get things figured out and get off this skid that we have been on. I think as anything mentally, we've got to get some confidence back and get the good play that we had in the first 18 games. We've kind of hit a wall here the last week and a half and we need some guys to step up and really rally the team and get some confidence back with this group."

Gaspard said the troubles started in Montgomery against Auburn.

"We missed some opportunities there that kind of led right into the Arkansas series, where we had many opportunities Friday and Saturday to put the game away and when we didn't," he said. "The bullpen let us down on Friday. The back-to-back losses knocked us back a little bit from a confidence standpoint and basically have the same thing happen Saturday in the back end, after a really, really good start from Jimmy Nelson. It kind of started there and at that point, I think, that starts to affect your energy level a little bit.

"I thought that's what we did so well in the first 17 or 18 games. We had really good concentration and focus on our execution of what we needed to do and we've kind of lost that through the last seven games. We've got a really good group of kids that want to win. It's a matter of us putting focus back on what we need to do and that's playing good baseball and being able to execute and playing the game the right way."

There has been one very bright spot for Alabama as of late, the hitting of junior shortstop Josh Rutledge, who has a 19-game hitting streak, the longest in the SEC. It's the second longest in the SEC this season behind Arkansas' Zack Cox, who opened the year with a 24-game hitting streak.

During the streak, Rutledge is hitting a robust .432 (35-for-81) with two home runs, 19 RBI and 20 runs scored. He has added seven doubles and one triple. Rutledge has 12 multi-hit games during the 19-game hitting streak, including nine two-hit games, two three-hit games and one four-hit outing.

The streak began with a 2-for-4 two RBI game against Georgia on March 3 at Regions Park in Hoover.

For the season, Rutledge is the Tide's second-leading hitter with a .412 batting average (.42-for-102) with three home runs and a team-best 27 RBI. He also leads Alabama with 28 runs scored, 14 multi-hit games and seven multi-RBI games.

Rutledge is looking for his second career 20-game hitting streak. He posted an Alabama freshman record 28-game hitting streak in 2008. During that streak, he batted .430 (52-for-121) six extra base hits, 27 runs scored and 20 RBI. The streak began with a 2-for-5 two RBI game at Jacksonville State on March 26, 2008 and ended with an 0-for-5 game against Florida on May 11, 2008.

There have been 11 20-game hitting streaks in Alabama history and Rutledge is bidding to become the first player in school history with two 20-game hitting streaks.

Sophomore centerfielder Taylor Dugas posted a 24-game hitting streak in 2009 and assistant coach Dax Norris had a 20-game hitting streak in 1996. Andy Phillips owns the Alabama and SEC with a 36-game hitting streak in 1999.

Gaspard said Rutledge has had an excellent approach to the game. "As good as he's played offensively he's been just that good on the defensive end," the coach said. "Josh has been a really consistent player for us for three years, but right now he is playing tremendous."

Both Alabama and Auburn are playing the Sunday starters by ear. On Saturday, Alabama will have left-hander Adam Morgan (3-0, 3.55 ERA) against Auburn left-hander Cory Luckie (1-1, 8.84). Saturday, the Tide goes with right-hander Jimmy Nelson (4-0, 1.78) against Tigers left-hander Cole Nelson (4-1, 3.12). Sunday pitchers for both teams will be announced later.

Here are notes from Alabama's media relations office:

Alabama is ranked in four polls: USA Today/ESPN Coaches (23rd) poll, Baseball America (25th), National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (29th) and Ping Baseball (29th).

ALABAMA HITTING NOTES: Alabama is fourth in the SEC in hitting (.312) ... The Crimson Tide leads the SEC in hitting with the bases loaded (.417), runners at third and less than two outs (.746) and advancing runners (.559) ... Alabama has the least amount of strikeouts (129) and the fewest home runs (17) in the SEC ... The Crimson Tide has only one home run in its last seven games and has been out-homered 11-1 in that stretch ... Alabama has hit into nine double plays in its last five games, including seven in the series at Arkansas (March 26-28) ... The Tide has five double-figure scoring games and 12 double-digit hit games this season ... The Crimson Tide's 25 runs scored against Illinois-Chicago on Feb. 27 tie LSU for the most runs in the SEC game this season ... LSU scored 25 runs against Centenary on Feb. 20 ... Alabama did not strike out in its 15-8 win over Stony Brook on March 12 ... The Tide had only one strikeout at Arkansas on March 27 ... Junior shortstop Josh Rutledge scored five runs in the win over Illinois-Chicago on Feb. 27, the most by an SEC player in 2010.

ALABAMA PITCHING NOTES: Alabama leads the SEC in fewest runs (99) allowed this season ... The Tide is third in fewest hits allowed (211), third in fewest walks allowed (75) and fourth in fewest earned runs (91) allowed ... Alabama has yielded 16 home runs this year, including 11 in the last six games ... The Tide has thrown two shutouts this season against the College of Charleston (4-0, March 6) and Stony Brook (5-0, March 13) ... The 4-0 win at the College of Charleston marked the first time Cougars had been shutout at home since a 6-0 loss to top-ranked Clemson on March 3, 2006 ... Nelson, Wolfe and Pilkington combined for the SEC's only one-hitter this season against Illinois-Chicago on Feb. 27 ... Alabama has six double-digit strikeouts games this season, including a season-high 16 strikeouts at the College of Charleston on March 6 ... Arkansas scored a season-high 10 runs against Alabama on March 28 ... The Tide has yielded 10 double-digit hit games, including a season-high 14 hits by Arkansas on March 28.

ALABAMA FIELDING NOTES: Alabama is third in the league in fielding (.976) and is tied with Mississippi for the second-fewest errors (21) in the league ... Alabama has played 11 errorless games and is 9-2 in those 11 games ... From Feb. 27-March 7, UA logged 35 2/3 consecutive errorless innings and fielded 133 consecutive chances without an error ... Alabama has eight outfield assists this season, by five different players ... The list includes Brett Booth (3), Taylor Dugas (2), Cal Tinsley (1), Andrew Miller (1) and John David Smelser (1) ... Alabama logged an SEC high 20 assists in its win over Stony Brook on March 12 ... Rutledge had an SEC-high eight assists in the game.

SMELSER OUT WITH TORN LABRUM: Alabama junior outfielder John David Smelser suffered torn labrum during pregame warm-ups at Arkansas on March 26 and will miss the remainder of the season. He is expected to have season-ending surgery next week. Smelser, a native of Tuscaloosa, played in 16 games and hit .306 (15-for-49) with 12 runs scored, four doubles and seven RBI. He also started 12 games in right field and left field. He had three multi-hit games, including a career-high three hits in the win over Illinois-Chicago on Feb. 27. He had a career best three RBI a win over Stony Brook on March 13.

KELTON HAS NCAA'S TOP ON-BASE MARK: Sophomore DH Jon Kelton leads the nation with a .623 on-base percentage, according to the latest NCAA Division I baseball statistics released on March 30. He has reached base 44 times in 21 games this season, including 20 times in the last five games. For the season, Kelton has 18 hits, 17 walks and nine HBPs.

DUGAS AMONG TOUGHEST TO STRIKE OUT: Sophomore center fielder Taylor Dugas ranks as the sixth-toughest player to strike out, according to the latest NCAA Division baseball statistics released on March 30. Dugas has struck out only twice in 82 at-bats this season, or once every 41 at-bats. He also had 103 plate appearances (82 AB, 25 BB, 6 SAC), which gives him one strikeout for every 51.5 plate appearances this season. Iona's Chris Griffin is the NCAA leader with no strikeouts in 61 at bats this year.

AUBURN SERIES: Alabama leads the all-time series with Auburn, 139-116. Auburn has won four of the last five meetings, including an 8-6 victory at the 2010 Capital City Classic on March 24 in Montgomery.

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