Tigers Tangle With No. 12 Rebels To Open SEC

Auburn will travel to Oxford to face the 12th-ranked Ole Miss Rebels this weekend to open SEC play.

Auburn, Ala.--After an up and down pre-conference season so far in 2012 the Auburn Tigers (10-7) hit the road to open Southeastern Conference play this weekend at 12th-ranked Ole Miss.

At 14-3 overall with a 12-1 mark at home, the Rebels will be a tough challenge for Coach John Pawlowski's Tigers, but he said he believes his team is prepared for what lies ahead.

"We have played a very difficult non-conference schedule and hopefully we have put our players in enough positions that they can handle what we'll see this weekend," Pawlowski said.

"It's going to be a great challenge. Ole Miss has played very well early in the season. You look up and down their lineup at their stats and numbers, they've done some really positive things. Our players are anxious. They are looking forward to it."

One of the reasons Pawlowski could feel good about his team's preparation this year is because of the schedule the Tigers have played. Facing off against talented teams such as Missouri, Purdue and Southern Miss at home and Alabama at a neutral site, the Tigers have also traveled to Arizona to face a Top 10 team on the road.

Pawlowski said that series was one that should help his team this weekend.

"I think reality struck for our team," he said of the trip out West. "You've got new faces and they all of the sudden go on the road and things aren't as easy as they seem or the competition all of the sudden goes to another level. You realize quickly how much you have to work and what you have to do to be successful. I think going to Arizona, certainly we learned a lot about our team."

While Auburn is built around speed on offense and playing small ball, the Tigers will face an Ole Miss team still capable of hitting the long ball. Through 17 games the Rebels are hitting .334 as a team with 15 home runs. They have outscored their opposition 146-54 this season thanks to a veteran lineup with three strong players at the top.

Leading the way offensively is Alex Yarbrough. Hitting .471 with three homers and 24 RBI, Yarbrough has an on-base percentage of .526 this year. The power in the lineup comes from Zach Kirksey. Despite only having 39 at-bats this season, the 6-0, 214 senior has eight home runs and 30 RBI and is slugging at a percentage of 1.154.

Another powerful player for the Rebels is big first baseman matt snyder. The six-foot-six senior is hitting .410 with a pair of homers and 19 RBI this season.

On the mound Ole Miss has a team ERA of just 2.74 led by sophomore right-hander Bobby Wahl. The Friday night starter for the Rebels, Wahl is 3-0 with a 1.96 ERA this season. In four starts he has allowed just 15 hits and five earned runs. Auburn will counter with senior right-hander Derek Varnadore, who is 1-1 with a 5.55 ERA this season.

Derek Varnadore pitches for the Tigers earlier this season.

The pitching matchups for the rest of the weekend series have R.J. Hiveley (3-0, 2.08) going up against sophomore Will Kendall (2-0, 0.00) from Auburn on Saturday and Mike Mayers (2-1, 3.43) on the mound for the Rebels against freshman Daniel Koger (1-1, 1.82) for the Tigers on Sunday.

Offensively for Auburn, senior Creede Simpson has been fantastic in 2012 as he leads the team with a .439 average, 15 RBI, 14 stolen bases and with seven doubles. Junior college transfer Ryan Tella has also been very good, hitting .410 with an on-base percentage of .554.

Auburn goes into the weekend leading the league in walks (91), sacrifice bunts (19), stolen bases (50) and is second in on-base percentage (.429), hits (181) and triples (seven).

Even with those numbers it hasn't translated into runs as the Tigers have scored 30 fewer runs than Ole Miss with 40 fewer total bases. Much of the reason for that has been a lack of clutch hitting. Because of that senior relief pitcher Justin Bryant has started taking swings again in batting practice and could be used as a pinch hitter or DH this weekend. A veteran who hit .323 with five home runs and 32 RBI in 2010, Bryant could give the Tigers a boost at the plate beginning this weekend.

"He feels really good," Pawlowski said. "We've let him hit all week. Going down to South Alabama (Tuesday night game that was rained out) I felt like he had a chance to be in the lineup. I was going to let him take batting practice and evaluate him from that standpoint. We could use another experienced bat in the lineup. He has that experience. He has quite a few at-bats at this level. He's such a tough competitor it really doesn't matter how many at-bats he's had or if he hasn't had any at-bats, he's going to go up there and compete for his at-bats."

Justin Bryant was a key hitter for the Tigers two seasons ago. He missed almost the entire 2011 season with an injury.

Bryant will also continue to be one of the guys who can finish a game for the Tigers out of the bullpen. Currently 1-0 with a 3.72 ERA this season in six appearances, the senior has been getting better each time out and that is important for a team looking to solidify the bullpen. More help could come this weekend from a pair of former SEC weekend starters as Pawlowski said Jon Luke Jacobs (3-0, 1.37) and Slade Smith (0-3, 7.63) will both be available out of the bullpen for the Tigers if needed against the Rebels.

Game times for the weekend series are scheduled for 6:30 p.m. CDT on Friday and 1:30 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday. There is no TV for the series.

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