Ranked fifth in the country with a record of 30-8 overall and 11-4 in SEC play, Auburn is coming off a big weekend on the road where in which the Tigers won two of three games from sixth-ranked Mississippi State in Starkville. Arkansas (28-7, 9-6) did the same to Vanderbilt in Fayetteville setting up yet another Western Division showdown for the Tigers.
"I think they are the most dangerous club we have seen," Auburn Coach Steve Renfroe said of Arkansas. "I've watched them on film. Their power numbers the last few weeks, it looks like they are on a roll. It's a team that was six outs from Omaha (last season) and returned an awful lot of guys from that run late in the year. They beat us three out of four times pretty handily."
Similar in style to LSU teams of old under Skip Bertman, the Razorbacks go to the plate looking for the long ball at seemingly every turn. Fourth in the league with 43 home runs, Arkansas has the league leader in senior outfielder Ryan Fox. For the season Fox is hitting .333 with 14 home runs and 37 runs batted in. In conference play his numbers are more impressive, hitting .358 with seven home runs and 21 RBI in just 15 games.
Miami transfer Haas Pratt has lived up to advanced billing as well with an average of .312 with nine home runs and 32 runs batted in. Rounding out Arkansas' bomber trio is Andrew Wishy, who has six home runs and a team-high 41 runs batted in while hitting .359. Wishy is tied for the league lead in doubles with Auburn's Tug Hulett at 19.
As a team the Razorbacks are hitting .316 and averaging just under eight runs scored per game while allowing opponents an average of only four runs per game with an average of .259. Arkansas has a solid and deep pitching staff with an ERA of 4.19 in SEC play, good for fourth in the league to this point. Coach Dave Van Horn will send experience to the mound on Friday night when senior Jarrett Gardner goes against Eric Brandon for the Tigers. Gardner is 3-2 with a 5.73 earned run average and hasn't walked a batter in 48 2/3 innings this season. Brandon is 2-2 with a 4.80 ERA, but has an ERA of just 3.29 in five conference starts this season.
Saturday's matchup has Auburn's Arnold Hughey squaring off against sophomore Clint Brannon for the Hogs. With a record of 4-2 and an ERA of 3.79, Hughey has been solid this season, but has yet to deliver that dominating performance like he's capable of producing. Brannon has been spectacular this season with a 2-1 record and an earned run average of just 2.49.
Sunday morning's game has Colby Paxton for Auburn taking on Charley Boyce, a redshirt freshman right-hander with a 4-1 record and a 3.31 ERA. Paxton is also 4-1 with a 3.80 earned run average.
Despite the difference in power numbers, Auburn and Arkansas are similar teams in terms of what they want to accomplish and that is get a lead and hand the ball off to the bullpen. The Razorbacks only have two complete games this season while Auburn has yet to have a pitcher go the distance. Both rely on the bullpen to close the deal.
Arkansas uses Scott Roehl in a similar fashion to the way Auburn uses both Levale Speigner and Cory Dueitt. With a record of 6-1 on the season and an ERA of 4.23, Roehl has thrown 27 2/3 innings, leading a group of six Arkansas relievers who have thrown at least 18 innings in 2003.
The Tigers are very similar with Speigner, Dueitt and Steven Register carrying the load for the pitching staff despite being in the pen. The trio has combined for a record of 15-2 and pitched 115 innings this season. Adding to their effectiveness has been true freshman Chris Dennis. Coming on strong, he has a record of 2-1 with a 3.29 ERA. He has been even better in conference play with a 2-1 mark and a team-best 1.86 earned run average.
"When you really break baseball down that's how it's played," Renfroe said of building a lead and letting the bullpen close it out. "With both teams having a guy down you're objective is to be ahead before the seventh or eighth inning and turn it over to the bullpen. Our bullpen has been the key to our season along with our defense.
"Our starters will be the first to tell you they are better than what they have shown. We haven't really hit a stride with our starters. I think they are capable and for us to be a contender we're going to have to get our starters rolling."
Karl Amonite is second on the team with a .353 average in conference play and leads the team with 16 runs batted in.
Offensively, Hulett continues to set the pace for the Tigers and the league, leading the SEC in hitting at .401 with 27 runs batted in. Hulett comes into the weekend with hits in 22 of his last 24 games and has a .415 average with nine doubles in 10 RBI in conference play along. Coming on strong is true freshman catcher Josh Bell. After struggling early in the SEC season, Bell is 7-15 in his last four games with three home runs, four runs scored and nine runs batted in.
Game times for the weekend are 6:30 on Friday night, 3 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday's game time has been changed to 11:30 a.m. to accommodate travel plans for the Razorbacks. There will be no television for Sunday's game because of the time change.