Auburn, Ala.--Following a midweek win over Morehead State, the Auburn Tigers hope to get back to their winning ways in the SEC when they travel to face No. 6 Florida in the final regular season series of the year.
Needing at least one win to keep alive any hopes of making the NCAA Tournament without an SEC Tournament Championship, Coach Sunny Golloway’s team must ramp up their performance level in a big way offensively if it hopes to take down the talented Gators beginning Thursday night.
“It’s everything,” Golloway said about what stands out for the Gators. “Their starting pitching is really good. They’ve got (A.J.) Puk back from his suspension and he’s throwing the second game from the left side and looks really good. I think the rest did him a lot of good.
"Their lineup is really good with a lot of power all the way through it," the coach added. "They lead our conference in fielding percentage. They are very good, that’s all there is to it.”
While the win total may be two to reach the NCAA Tournament, right now the most important number for the Tigers is three, as in three runs allowed by the pitching staff. Heading into the final weekend Auburn is just 9-20 in games in which it allows more than two runs. In SEC games that number is just 1-15. That means just one time this season Auburn has allowed more than two runs against a conference foe and won the game.
That’s not good news considering the firepower the Gators possess at the plate. While Florida has been held under three runs seven times in SEC play, meaning the Gators can be shut down on a given night, they have still managed to score 163 runs in 27 games (six runs per game) against league foes. Compare that to Auburn’s 112 runs (4.1) in conference games and you have a big challenge ahead for the Tigers to find enough offense in Gainesville.
Damon Haecker has played in the outfield and infield for the Tigers.
“We’re going to have to stick to our offense, bunt, do our things like hit-and-run,” sophomore Damon Haecker said. “We’re going to put pressure on the defense. If D-Rob (Daniel Robert) or one of our bigger guys runs into a ball that would definitely help us. That’s part of our offense, but we’ve got to stay within ourselves.”
A key for the Tigers will be the play of center fielder Anfernee Grier. Coming off a two-hit performance against Morehead State on Tuesday night, Grier is hoping to put last weekend’s dreadful performance behind him when he went 1-13 with nine strikeouts against Alabama. Seven of those strikeouts came in succession, something Grier said oddly enough he’s been through before.
“In high school my senior year I went through a little struggle,” Grier said. “It’s kind of frustrating, but you expect that playing this game. It comes with it. You’re going to have good weekends and you’re going to have bad weekends. You just have to be able to handle them both and flush it and move on to the next at-bat or the next game.”
It’s not just how you swing that bat that can make the difference, but also how you take advantage of your opportunities and make other teams earn everything on offense. That shows up from a pitching standpoint as well as Florida’s staff has struck out 213 and walked just 65 in SEC games this season. Compare that to Auburn’s 178 strikeouts and 106 walks and it comes down to limiting the number of free bases you give a team.
Leading the way for Florida’s balanced offense is talented third baseman Josh Tobias. Hitting .341 with four home runs, five triples, 11 doubles and 31 RBI, Tobias is one of eight Gators who have driven in at least 20 runs this season.
It’s not just his bat that makes Tobias one of the best as he’s in line for one of the best fielding seasons in the history of college baseball. Still without an error in 84 chances this season, Tobias’ perfect fielding percentage leads the way for a Florida team that is fielding .985 this year.
On the mound the Gators are expected to go with Logan Shore (6-5, 2.85 ERA) on Thursday, A.J. Puk (7-3, 4.73) on Friday and Alex Faedo (4-1, 3.74) on Saturday. It will be important for Auburn to try to get the win on Thursday because Puk has been dominant since his return from a suspension during the season. In his last two starts against Georgia and Vanderbilt, the big lefty has allowed just two runs and 12 hits in 13 innings while striking out 23 and walking only three hitters.
If the Gators get to the bullpen with the lead it could spell trouble for the Tigers with relievers Taylor Lewis and Bobby Poyner combining for eight wins and nine saves this season in 42 appearances. The duo has combined to strike out 71 and walk just 13 in 85 combined innings this season.
Game times for the series are 6 p.m. on both Thursday and Friday with Saturday’s regular season finale set for noon. All times are CDT with the games available on SEC Network+/Watch ESPN only.