AU Faces Razorbacks In Crucial Final Series

Auburn has clawed its way back into contention for the NCAA Tournament, but needs one final weekend series win to strengthen those chances with Arkansas coming to town.

Auburn, Ala.—Following a letdown in a 6-1 loss to Jacksonville State on Tuesday night, the Auburn Tigers (31-21, 11-16) are looking to regain the momentum against a very tough Arkansas team in the final SEC baseball series of the regular season beginning Thursday night at Plainsman Park.

Already securing a berth in the SEC Tournament next week in Hoover, Coach John Pawlowski's club likely needs another series win to have any realistic chance of making it to the NCAA Tournament, something that is the ultimate goal for the program.

"It's a big weekend and obviously an important weekend for a number of different reasons," Pawlowski says. "I'm proud of our club for making the SEC Tournament for the fourth year in a row, but more goals and more aspirations lie ahead for this club. We certainly know we're going to have to play well this weekend to move forward.

"In the beginning of the year we lay out our goals and our goals are to go to the SEC Tournament, to go to the NCAA Tournament and to fight for a national championship," he adds. "Those are our basic three goals. The players are smart enough and they understand what's at stake. We're playing for more than just seeding in the SEC Tournament, we're playing to be one of the 64 teams fighting to go to Omaha."

It won't be easy however as 11th-ranked Arkansas (34-17, 17-9) has won all four conference series on the road this season and the Razorbacks have won seven of their first nine series for the first time since 1999. While there are some veterans at the plate for Coach Dave Van Horn, including Brian Anderson and Matt Vinson, the strength of the team is without question on the mound.

Entering the weekend Arkansas leads the nation in team earned run average at just 1.87 and has just one pitcher on the staff with an earned run average higher than three. The starting rotation is perhaps the best Auburn will face all season and that's saying something considering the Tigers faced Vanderbilt and LSU to open SEC play.

Getting the call on Thursday night will be junior right-hander Barrett Astin. Although he has a record of just 4-3, Astin has an ERA of 2.21 and has struck out 56 batters while walking only 18 this season in 15 appearances with 11 starts.

It doesn't get any easier on Friday as Ryne Stanek takes the hill for the Hogs. Currently 7-2, Stanek has a miniscule 1.70 ERA and has struck out 68 while holding opponents to a .218 batting average.

Perhaps the toughest matchup for Auburn comes on Saturday with senior left-hander Randall Fant on the mound. The crafty veteran is 5-1 with a 2.00 ERA and has limited opponents to just a .200 average this season.

Ryne Stanek

When you throw in closer Colby Suggs (0-0, 10 saves, 2.16 ERA) you have perhaps the most talented group in the country. Because of that Pawlowski says his team will have to be productive at the plate and take advantage of opportunities when given. In recent weeks, however, the power has started to show up for the Tigers, with nine home runs last week. Pawlowski notes it wouldn't be a bad thing to see that happen again this weekend.

"In SEC games this year we have hit 20 home runs," the coach says. "Out of the 11 games we have won we have hit 15 home runs. When we have won we've hit the long ball. If we're fortunate enough to do that, great, but against good pitching staffs you have to be able to create runs. We may have to deviate a little bit and do some other things. We've tried to do some stuff, but it seems when we've had our best success the guys have stepped up and hit some home runs."

For Auburn to have success it will depend on the middle of the order to deliver. Although he had a 15-game hitting streak snapped on Tuesday night, senior first baseman Garrett Cooper has been a big part of things for the Tigers offensively in wins over Ole Miss and Florida. Leading the team with a .360 average, Cooper has hit six of his seven home runs in SEC games and has 18 RBI.

On the mound for the final series will be Auburn's familiar rotation with junior Conner Kendrick (4-3, 2.25 ERA) on Thursday night, fellow junior Michael O'Neal (8-3, 2.85 ERA) on Friday night and TBA on Saturday.

Justin Camp (5-1, 2.13 ERA) is a possibility to get the final start for the Tigers if he isn't used in either of the first two games. Game times for the weekend series are 6 p.m. on both Thursday and Friday and 1 p.m. on Saturday.

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