Tigers Face Tough Challenge At Arkansas

Auburn (26-22, 10-14) faces off against Arkansas (34-15, 12-12) in a huge three-game series beginning with Thursday night's game on ESPNU.

Auburn, Ala.—With only six SEC games remaining, the Auburn Tigers (26-22, 10-14) have put themselves in dire straits after a sweep last weekend at Georgia. Things don't get any easier this week as Coach John Pawlowski's Tigers head into one of the toughest environments in college baseball to face the Arkansas Razorbacks (34-15, 12-12) in a must-win situation if Auburn hopes to make in to a NCAA Regional.

"We need to win," Pawlowski said. "I think we've just got to win some games. I don't know what that magic number is. I think the NCAA Tournament, whether it's RPI or number of wins, I think it's a moving target. I don't know what the criteria is going to be or what the dividing line is going to be. I think the bottom line is we need to win some games down the stretch here."

Auburn must do the little things well in order to win the series against a veteran Arkansas team. It has been mistakes that have cost the Tigers this season because if you just look at the numbers they don't tell the entire story. In 24 conference games this year Auburn is hitting .301 as a team compared to just .259 for the opposition. Auburn's team ERA is 4.30 compared to 4.61 for its opponents. Those stats don't look like a team that is four games under .500, but all you have to do is look a little deeper to understand why.

In SEC games alone Auburn has made 10 more errors than its opponents and while the walks are virtually the same, the Tigers have struck out 173 times compared to just 101 for the opposition. Getting 44 more hits in 24 games and reaching base 43.1 percent of the time as a team in conference action, Auburn has scored one fewer run than it has allowed over that stretch.

With regular Friday night starter Ryan Stanek (6-3, 2.99 ERA) a little banged up there's a chance D.J. Baxendale (6-3, 3.65) will face off against Auburn on Thursday night. Veteran Randall Fant (2-2, 4.04) is expected to be the third starter for the Razorbacks. With several talented relievers as well, including Brandon Moore (4-1, 2.47) and closer Barrett Astin (2-4, 2.18, 9 saves), Pawlowski said no matter the order they'll see them the Razorbacks have some very strong arms that will present a big challenge to his club.

"Obviously their starters are outstanding," Pawlowski said. "They've got some really big arms coming out of the bullpen. It's as deep a pitching staff as there is in this league from what I'm hearing. It's tough to score off them period if you look at their numbers. It will be the biggest challenge we've faced so far from an offensive standpoint."

At the plate Arkansas is led by first baseman Dominic Ficociello with a .330 average. He has added four home runs and leads the team with 32 RBI. Behind him is Matt Reynolds. The Arkansas third baseman is hitting .329 with four homers and 32 RBI as well and has reached base safely in 32 consecutive games. He's also added 11 stolen bases this season and leads the team with 14 doubles.

Auburn will counter with a rotation of senior Jon Luke Jacobs (5-2, 3.23) on Thursday and freshman Daniel Koger (3-4, 2.74) on Friday. With struggles in the final game the last two weekends, Pawlowski said they'll be TBA on Saturday but didn't rule out the possibility of Derek Varnadore in that spot if he's not used the first two games in relief.

At the plate the Tigers will be without one of their top hitters as outfielder Cullen Wacker is out for at least this weekend and possibly the rest of the regular season with a sprained knee. Hitting .355 with 27 RBI, Wacker had been a solid part of the Auburn lineup this season but had done much of his damage in SEC play. In 21 conference games Wacker is hitting .372 with 10 RBI. Without him sophomore Bobby Andrews will remain in left field. He's hitting .272 but has 12 stolen bases this season.

Thursday's game is scheduled for a first pitch of 6:30 p.m. and will be shown nationally on ESPNU. Friday will also be a night game with a 6:35 start while Saturday's series finale is scheduled for 2:05 p.m.

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