Showdown In Starkville

The fifth-ranked Auburn Tigers and the sixth-ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs meet this weekend in Starkville in the biggest league series to date for both teams.

Auburn, Ala.--Entering their baseball series vs. the visiting Auburn Tigers with a record of 24-5 overall and 9-2 in SEC play, the Mississippi State Bulldogs (24-5-1, 9-2) have been dominant on the mound and will be a tough opponent for the Tigers during Super Bulldog weekend.

Auburn is 27-7 overall and 9-3 in conference play after taking two-of-three from rival Alabama last weekend at Plainsman Park.

"It's a big series and we're excited," Auburn Coach Steve Renfroe said. "We think it's a great opportunity to play a great team on the road. We think we're facing the best pitching staff by far in the league and the best pitching staff we've seen.

"We think they're probably going to end up, if not the best pitching staff in the country, in the top two or three. We go there in a tough place to play with Coach Polk (Ron Polk). We're excited and looking forward to it."

For many seasons, the focus of the SEC has been on offense and hitting home runs. LSU established the blueprint for winning in the late 1980s and 1990s by hitting home runs and scoring runs at alarming rates. With the toning down of metal bats in recent seasons, SEC teams have been forced to revert back to playing traditional baseball for the most part. That means letting pitching and defense win games in the late innings. This weekend two teams that are the examples of those strategies square off in what may turn out to be the biggest series of the year for both.

Led by Friday starter Paul Maholm (5-1, 1.31 ERA), the Bulldogs have a team ERA of just 2.45 and allow opponents to hit at an average of just .208. MSU has allowed just nine home runs and given up four runs or less in 22 of 30 games this season while committing only 29 errors. Before Saturday's 8-2 loss to Kentucky, the Bulldogs had allowed just 21 runs total in their first 10 SEC games. In a testament to how good its pitching has been, MSU has played just three games this season that lasted more than three hours in length.

In addition to Maholm, the Bulldogs have two excellent starters in sophomores Alan Johnson and Todd Nicholas. A right-hander, Johnson will pitch Saturday and has been outstanding lately. He is 4-1 with a 3.18 ERA. Nicholas, a left-hander, is 3-2 with a 2.20 ERA. The trio has combined to pitch 81 2/3 innings in conference play, leaving just 22 1/3 for the relievers. Most of those appearances go to Jamie Gant (1-0, 0.00), who has pitched 14 innings this season in nine appearances. The closer is Jonathan Papelbon, who is 4-0 with a 0.42 ERA in 21 2/3 innings this season. He leads the team with two saves.

Arnold Hughey will start Saturday against Mississippi State.

"They're solid and don't make mistakes," Renfroe said. "They have great pitching and they're deep. The thing Mississippi State always has is depth. They have lots of players and lots of talent. They're the same. This is the best pitching staff in the league by far. They are probably up there with Rice and Georgia Tech. They are probably one of the top three or four in the country. You don't go in the SEC and people hit .200. That's rare, but they have stuffed everybody."

At the plate senior and Oxford, Ala., native Matthew Maniscalco leads the Bulldogs with a .378 average, 48 hits and 31 runs scored. A heady player with better than average speed, the shortstop has stolen 13 bases in 15 attempts, but has just 14 extra-base hits.

Steady Steve Gendron is hitting .360 with one home run and 20 runs batted in while the power comes from Jon Mungle and Matthew Brinson, with five home runs each. Mungle is hitting .320 with Brinson just behind at .316.

Countering the Bulldogs on the mound will be Auburn's normal rotation of Eric Brandon (2-1, 4.60) on Friday night, Arnold Hughey (4-2, 3.21) on Saturday and Colby Paxton (3-1, 3.86) on Sunday. Searching for consistent performances, the trio has just one appearance of more than seven innings in conference play this season. That has put the pressure on the bullpen of Levale Speigner, Cory Dueitt and Steven Register and they have responded admirably with a 14-2 record and 11 saves in 57 appearances this season.

"They've been the key because our starters have not gone very far in the game," Renfroe said of the bullpen. "The last couple of years we have not had the luxury of being able to have somebody come into the game in the fourth, fifth and sixth inning and give us quality innings to get to the closer. They have been the story of our team to give us chances to hang in there and win some games."

If the bullpen has been the story of the 2003 Auburn team, the secondary story has been the emergence of sophomore Tug Hulett at the plate. Moved to the number three spot in the Tiger order because of his ability to hit the ball to all fields, the second baseman has responded with a strong start in conference play. Hitting .410 this season with one homer, 25 runs batted in and a team-high 17 doubles, Hulett has improved his play in SEC competition by hitting .451 (23-51) with 12 runs scored and nine doubles in 12 games.

Also coming on at the plate is junior third baseman Scott Schade. With a 10-game hitting streak and hitting .409 (18-44) during that stretch, Schade has put a stamp in the bottom half of the Tiger order and his play should guarantee better pitches for the middle of the Auburn order.

Josh Bell's three home runs are tied for third on the Auburn team this season.

That is something needed at the moment with both Josh Bell and Karl Amonite struggling to find their groove in conference play. After drilling non-conference pitching, including Clemson, UNC and Georgia Tech, Bell hasn't been able to find the answer for SEC pitching. Hitting .409 heading into the opening weekend of conference play, Bell has just seven hits in his last 49 at-bats to drop his average down to just .307. He hasn't been helped by a flu bug that hampered him for much of the last two weeks. Now healthy once again, Bell will be looking to break out on the road against the Bulldogs.

Amonite opened SEC play swinging the bat well, but is just 2-for-26 in his last seven conference games. With two tough lefties on the mound for MSU this weekend, don't be surprised to see Kyle Bohm get more action at first base to get a better match-up for the Tigers.

Game times for the weekend are 6:30 p.m. CDT on Friday night, 3 p.m. on Saturday and 1:30 on Sunday afternoon. There is no television coverage for any of the games.

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