Tigers Take On Hogs To Open SEC Play

Auburn will face Arkansas in the opening weekend of SEC play beginning Friday night at Plainsman Park.

Auburn, Ala.--With the preconference part of the schedule now complete the 24th-ranked Auburn Tigers (12-5) jump right into the thick of things in the SEC this weekend as they face the #9 Arkansas Razorbacks (14-2) in a three-game series at Plainsman Park. Winning the SEC West last year, coach John Pawlowski said facing a team like the Razorbacks will get the 2011 Tigers initiated into league play in a hurry.

"Arkansas is off to another great start," Pawlowski said. "It looks like they are playing very well. When you start talking about SEC play it really doesn't matter too much who you're playing because this conference is so good top to bottom."

When you look at Arkansas the attention immediately is on the pitching staff. Always a trademark of a Dave Van Horn team, the Razorbacks are putting up eye-popping numbers so far this season on the mound led by Friday night starter D.J. Baxendale. The sophomore is 4-0 on the year in six appearances with two starts. In 19 1/3 innings he has allowed just 11 hits and no runs, struck out 21, and walked just three hitters.

He's not the only talented starter for the Razorbacks however as Saturday starter Brandon Moore is a freshman right-hander that is 2-0 with a 3.27 ERA. Sophomore lefty Cade Lynch (2-0, 1.35) will get the call on Sunday for a team that has a combined ERA of just 3.19.

Arkansas did suffer a blow on the mound this week as one of its top pitchers Geoffrey Davenport was lost for the season with an arm injury. He was 3-1 with a 4.95 ERA in six appearances this year.

While consistency is the theme on the mound, for the Arkansas offense it has been feast or famine with only four everyday players hitting over .300. The good news for the Razorbacks is that those four guys have been on fire led by Dominic Ficocielli. Hitting .426, he has 23 hits in 16 games and has struck out just nine times.

With 12 home runs as a team, the power is supplied by Kyle Robinson. Hitting .409, he has four homers and a team-high 22 RBI. Veteran James McCann is also off to a good start with a .377 average and a pair of home runs.

While Arkansas has been led by it's pitching and some pop from a few guys in the lineup, it has been Auburn's depth that has keyed the Tigers to a 12-5 start as 10 different players have at least four RBI this season led by the red hot Dan Gamache. Hitting .349, the junior has two home runs and 18 RBI this season. In his last four games Gamache has nine hits and 10 RBI to lead the team.

Leading Auburn in hitting is senior Wes Gilmer. Currently at .409, the third baseman has 11 RBI on the year. Right behind him is junior Casey McElroy. Catching a cleat to the chin that required three stitches Tuesday night, he's expected to be in the lineup this weekend. On the year he's hitting .386 with a pair of home runs and 14 RBI.

As a team Auburn is hitting a very respectable .314 with nine home runs but strikeouts continue to be a problem for the Tigers. In 17 games hitters have struck out 131 times with just 73 walks. Pawlowski said that's one of the things they have to continue to improve on but overall he's pleased with the progress of the offense.

"There are some things we've got to iron out offensively," Pawlowski said. "We've got to find a way to cut down on our strikeouts and obviously manufacture runs. I think Tony Caldwell will be available for us this weekend (strained shoulder). That would be good to get him going."

On the mound Pawlowski said the biggest thing the Tigers need to work on is bridging the gap between the starter and relievers. With relievers Sean Ray, Ethan Wallen and Zach Blatt pitching well on the back end of games Auburn may make a change this weekend to help shore up the middle relief.

That could come on Saturday as midweek starter Will Irvin (2-0, 3.93) could be in line for the start if it doesn't go to Slade Smith. Smith has been in that role all season for the Tigers but at 1-0 with an ERA of 8.00, Pawlowski said they may give him a look back in the relief role he excelled at last season.

There is no change on Friday or Sunday for the Tigers however as junior Cory Luckie (1-1, 3.63) opens the series on the mound with junior college transfer Derek Varnadore (3-0, 2.79) closing things out on Sunday.

Game times for the weekend series are 6 p.m. on Friday, 3 p.m. on Saturday and 1 p.m. on Sunday.

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