Auburn has quickly earned the reputation of road warriors this season with one of the more challenging schedules in the history of the program. With a record of 11-1 on the road this season, the Tigers have taken on all comers and it has paid off with the highest ranking for an Auburn baseball team since 1999. Coach Steve Renfroe says that he has seen a change in his team since winning big games at North Carolina and Georgia Tech.
"We just have to line up and play," Renfroe says. "I think going on the road and winning is a real positive for us. We went and did our job. I know it was a long road trip, but really my biggest concern is ‘are we going to have a full tank this weekend?' and if we do the road trip will have been a real benefit for us."
As usual, Friday night's game will be a crucial contest with junior Eric Brandon taking the mound for the Tigers against sophomore Taylor Tankersley for Alabama. Brandon is 2-1 with a 4.61 ERA this season while Tankersley has been downright nasty with a 5-0 record and an earned run average of just 2.34 in 50 innings pitched. For the season he has struck out 59 hitters and walked just 18.
"Tankersley seems to go eight or nine innings and beats everybody," Renfroe said. "That's the one thing we haven't done. If we had somebody step up to become a Halla (Ryan Halla) or a Cormier (Lance Cormier), if we did that you would have to put us down as real legit. We just haven't done that yet. We've had teams that didn't have all of these arms, but we had Halla and it was a lock win."
Saturday's pitching matchup also looks to be a pleasing one for what is expected to be a key series in the SEC's Western Division. Sophomore left-hander Arnold Hughey is 4-1 on the season with a 3.45 ERA in 47 innings. Hughey will face either sophomore Brent Carter or true freshman Allen Ponder. Ponder is 2-2 this season with a 4.32 ERA and has given up 26 hits in 25 innings.
Junior Colby Paxton gets the nod in Sunday's game. Currently 3-1 with a 3.03 ERA, Paxton has been getting better with every outing and is poised to return to the form that made him one of the top freshman pitchers in the country two seasons ago. Paxton will face off with Seth Johnson at the 1:30 p.m. Johnson is 3-0 with a 1.35 ERA in 26.2 innings pitched and has allowed just 17 hits and five runs this season.
At the plate the Crimson Tide is led by Adam Pavkovich, who has seven home runs and 30 runs batted in while hitting .404. Pavkovich is a doubles hitting machine with 15 on the season and is a dangerous threat both at the plate and on the base paths.
Pavkovick may be leading the way in batting average, but this team's offense depends on the big bat of Beau Hearod. Leading the SEC with 11 home runs and 48 runs batted in, he's made a living hitting in small Sewell-Thomas Stadium, but now he must do it away from home if he hopes to help Alabama pull off the upset and walk away with a series win. Lefty Zac Welch is also a dangerous player with a .357 batting average and two home runs.
"They are good," Renfroe says of Alabama. "They've proven it, Jim (Wells) has proven it. To be honest with you, I'm focusing on us. We have to get better with the starting pitching. We have to get better offensively. That's my biggest concern. This week we had planned a real work week and we scratched that. The thing that I like is that we're pretty tough."
Auburn was forced to abandon the normal routine this week because of a flu bug that ran through the team the last few weeks. Wednesday night in Montgomery facing Troy State, the Tigers were without shortstop Chuck Jeroloman and catcher Josh Bell, both whom should return this weekend against Alabama.
Second baseman Tug Hulett continues to lead the team in hitting after torching opponents in March with a .429 batting average, 12 doubles, 17 runs scored and 13 runs batted in. Third baseman Scott Schade comes into Friday's contest with a seven-game hitting streak and playing the best defense of his career at third base.
Alabama leads the all-time series 109-92, but Auburn leads on the Plains 45-38 and has won five of the last six meetings between the two schools in Auburn. Friday's game is scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. with the Saturday contest at 3 p.m., following the A-Day football game. Sunday's game is set for 1:30 p.m. and can be seen on Comcast/Charter Sports Southeast.