Tigers Hoping to Move Up in SEC West Race

Auburn will have an early start for this week's SEC series with the Tigers and Rebels opening play on Thursday night at Plainsman Park.

Auburn, Ala.--Trailing three teams by one game for first place in the SEC West, the Auburn baseball Tigers will try to make a move to the top of the division as they open a three-game series at Plainsman Park on Thursday evening with the expectation that their best pitcher will be back on the mound.

Junior Derek Varnadore was held out of last weekend's series at LSU due to a sore arm. Auburn managed to win two out of three games in Baton Rouge to improve to 7-8 in SEC play.

Derek Varnadore

Varnadore was able to throw without a problem in practice on Tuesday and Coach John Pawlowski said the right-hander should be able to throw against the Rebels for the 6:30 p.m. CDT game on Thursday that will be televised on ESPNU.

For the 6 p.m. game on Friday the Tigers are expected to go with Zach Blatt, whose first college start was a success last Friday night.

For the final game of the series at noon on Saturday, the Tigers are expected to pitch lefty Cory Luckie, who tied his career-best performance of nine strikeouts last Saturday in a victory over LSU.

Auburn trails Ole Miss, Alabama and Arkansas by just one game in the standings. Each of those teams heads into their SEC series that start on Friday with 8-7 records. Arkansas will play at Kentucky while Alabama heads to Florida.

Ole Miss fell to 23-16 overall after losing 6-1 to Mississippi State on Tuesday night in Pearl, Miss., in a contest that does not count in the SEC standings. Auburn also struggled on Tuesday night, falling at home 7-1 to South Alabama.

The lack of quality pitching vs. the Jaguars and the inability to hit in the clutch prompted Pawlowski to conduct a lengthy post-game meeting with his players in which he told them they are going to have to perform significantly better to have a chance vs. the Rebels.

"Ole Miss has played very well and is a very talented team," the coach said. "We know that with their starting pitching they will throw three power arms at us. They have an experienced team. It seems like every weekend in the SEC you see teams with quality players who are right in the hunt."

The Rebels feature a 3.62 team earned run average as they head to Plainsman Park. Junior lefty Matt Crouse leads the way with a 6-2 record and 2.79 ERA. He is scheduled to pitch on Thursday. Closer Jake Morgan has yet to allow an earned run in 18 2/3 innings this year and has five saves.

The Rebels are scheduled to startjunior right-handed pitcher David Goforth, who is 2-5 with a 4.27 ERA, on Friday. Lefty Austin Wright, 4-3 with a 3.99 ERA, is expected to pitch on Saturday for the Rebs.

Ole Miss is hitting .286 as a team with Tanner Mathis leading the way with a .348 average. Alex Yarbrough is hitting .347 and Matt Smith is the top power hitter with six home runs and a .308 batting average.

Against South Alabama the Tigers hit a lot of deep balls, but showed only warning track power. The result was just one run scored in a game in which Ole Miss made just two put-outs at first base.

"We talked about it--definitely too many fly balls," Pawlowski said of what he saw on Tuesday night. "We have to continue to get them to understand the game has changed. The way we play it is not the way some of them swung last year. It's always alarming when we hit too many fly balls. Put it in play and put it on the ground and see what we can do."

Creede Simpson, who was hit in the nose trying to make a catch in center field on Sunday, missed Tuesday's game, but could be back in action vs. Ole Miss.

In the last two SEC series Auburn's pitching has improved. One of the reasons has been good work in the bullpen from freshman Dillon Ortman, who has taken the role as Auburn's closer.

Zach Blatt is expected to make his second Auburn start vs. the Rebels.

"Losing Austin Hubbard, one of our biggest concerns was trying to find out who that guy was going to be," Pawlowski said of the closer role for the 2011 season. "We felt very good coming into the season with three guys, Ethan Wallen, Zach Blatt and Justin Bryant.

"Justin (who is injured) obviously can't help us this year," Pawlowski said. "He's doing very well with his rehab. We felt like Zach had been throwing the ball well and what he did at Kentucky deserved an opportunity to start. We've kind of moved in a different direction. Dillon Ortman has done a really good job for us...He's helped stabilize that bullpen down there."

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