Ranked eighth in the country by Baseball America, Auburn comes into the weekend with a 31-11 record overall and a 12-6 mark in SEC play. The Tigers are looking to break a string of three losses in their last four games and will have to do it against a team playing well in recent conference series.
Vanderbilt is 20-19 overall, but 8-10 in conference play after taking two-of-three from SEC West leader LSU last weekend at Hawkins Field in front of the largest series crowd in Vanderbilt history. With almost 4,500 fans in the stands, the Commodores continued a run that has seen them win six of their last nine conference games.
"Last year they were this close," Auburn Coach Steve Renfroe says of the Commodores' improvement this season. "We had three last at-bat wins against them. Early in the year that happened to them. Those kids were right there and they added a couple of arms. They added a couple of kids. Their recruiting class was ranked Top 10 in the country. It wasn't surprising to me. They are very good and they are hungry. That's very dangerous."
Senior Bobby Huddleston leads the Tigers in home runs with nine this season.
The Commodores are led by one of the top pitching staffs in the SEC with a team earned run average of just 3.81 this season. At the top of the heap is sophomore left-hander Jeremy Sowers, who will start Friday night's game against Auburn's Arnold Hughey (4-3, 4.26 ERA). The 20th overall selection by the Cincinnati Reds prior to his freshman season at Vanderbilt, Sowers has picked up where he left off as a freshman. He has a very impressive earned run average of 2.58 in 76 2/3 innings. His 4-4 record could easily be much better. He has allowed just 59 hits and has struck out 82 batters.
Saturday's pitching matchup features Auburn's Colby Paxton facing junior right-hander Robert Ransom for the Commodores. Paxton is 4-1 with a 3.71 ERA in 10 starts this season while Ransom is 3-1 with an earned run average of 4.95.
Cory Dueitt will be making his ninth career start on Sunday.
On Sunday the Tigers will send Cory Dueitt to the mound for his first conference start since the SEC Tournament in 2001 to face freshman lefty Ryan Mullins for Vanderbilt. Dueitt is 6-1 with a 2.06 ERA this season in 23 appearances. Mullins is 2-6, but his ERA is a solid 3.82 in 10 starts this season.
Vandy's pitching strength doesn't end with the starters this season as in previous seasons. Coming out of the pen are two stellar arms in Matt Buschmann and Jensen Lewis. With a record of 4-1 and an ERA of 3.89, Buschmann is to Vanderbilt what Levale Speigner is to Auburn, a long reliever capable of pitching his way out of jams. Vandy's real weapon this season has been Lewis. A 33rd round selection by the Cleveland Indians last summer, Lewis is 2-4 but leads the team with six saves and has an ERA of 3.29 in a team-high 18 appearances.
Renfroe says that he was surprised that Lewis isn't playing professionally. "Jensen Lewis is a kid that I saw last summer and the first time I saw him I told Chris (Assistant Coach Chris Finwood), ‘He's too good for college, you don't need to mess with him.' I just didn't think he would show up--the same thing with Sowers. We had already heard there was stuff in the works. Talent-wise, this guy is not a college guy. That's how good we thought he was."
At the plate the Commodores are led by reigning SEC Player of the Week Cesar Nicholas. Hitting .359 with a team-high five home runs and 23 runs batted in, Nicholas anchors an infield that is one of the best in the league. Just behind Nicholas is Warner Jones, who is hitting .315 with three home runs and 19 RBI. Clemson transfer Ryan Klosterman has also brought some pop to the Vanderbilt offense with a .310 average, two home runs and 10 runs batted in. His main weapon is on the base paths where he has 27 stolen bases in 34 attempts to lead the team by a wide margin.
Just looking at the numbers you can tell that Vanderbilt lives and dies with pitching and defense. Hitting just .263 as a team with only four players over .300, the Commodores have hit just 14 home runs this season while allowing 25. Vanderbilt is allowing opponents to hit just .251 this season and score just over four runs per game. The Commodores average just under four runs per game, with 153 runs scored in 39 games.
For the Tigers, second baseman Tug Hulett leads the team in hitting with an average of .400 heading into Friday's play. Hulett has hit safely in seven-straight games and has a hit in 26 of his last 28 games. Third baseman Scott Schade is second on the team with a .327 average and has a hit in his last 15 SEC games.
First baseman Karl Amonite is hitting .416 with four home runs, three doubles, eight runs batted in and eight doubles in his last seven games. For the year Amonite is batting .313 with eight home runs and 37 runs batted in. He is tied for the team lead in walks with 21.
Game times for the weekend are 7 p.m. on Friday, 4 p.m. on Saturday and 1 p.m. on Sunday. The Sunday game will be televised live by Comcast/Charter Sports Southeast.