Coming off their first baseball series loss of the season last week at Texas A&M, the 10thr-ranked Auburn Tigers (25-10, 8-4) stay away from Plainsman Park again this week with a trip to Tennessee to face the Vols in three games beginning Thursday night.
Winning a series last weekend at Florida and coming close to sweeping the Gators, Tennessee has shown it is very capable of being a tough out and Auburn’s coach, Butch Thompson, noted heis expecting another tough challenge for his club.
Entering the weekend 17-13 overall and 3-9 in SEC play, Tennessee is the continuation of the longest road trip of the season for the Tigers. Facing Samford on the road Tuesday night and staying in Birmingham before traveling to Knoxville on Wednesday, Auburn is in the midst of a stretch that Thompson said could shape the rest of the season for his team.
“This is a pivotal moment for our ball club,” he said. “I think we’re aware of that. It’s huge to have success and keep trying to win games in the league to keep up. I think if you look at it, 10 of our 14 teams are within two games of first place. That’s another amazing thing that I can’t remember in my 15 years.
“Everybody feels like that they’re right there. These 10 to 14 teams feel like they can come out of this weekend in first place. It’s crazy. It’s absolute chaos for 10 of our 14 teams to feel like, ‘Hey, if we go play good, we’ll be in first place.’ I just want us to keep taking it one game and one pitch at a time.”
That starts on the mound where the Tigers will have sophomore Casey Mize (5-1, 1.37 ERA) pitching for Thursday night’s opener with junior Keegan Thompson (4-1, 1.27) on Friday and freshman Davis Daniel (2-2, 4.86) on Saturday. Moving everyone up a day in the rotation could be cause for concern, but Butch Thompson said getting an extra day’s rest next week makes it the right move.
“We think that gives us the best chance to be competitive,” he said of keeping the rotation intact. “We held out (Andrew) Mitchell and (Cole) Lipscomb so we should have some bullpen pieces ready. We need to take it one pitch at a time, and one game at a time. Hopefully, we can find a way early in the series.
"Casey (Mize) has done a lot in the last two weeks," he said. "We need for him to be efficient, to keep the ball in the strike zone, and we probably need some bullpen pieces in that first game.”
The need to be efficient is also the case for Keegan Thompson. Coming back from a week off following shoulder tendinitis, the Cullman native wasn’t as sharp as usual in a loss last week at Texas A&M and his coach is hoping to see the old Keegan back on Friday night.
“I thought he was healthy and rusty,” Butch Thompson said. “I thought his fastball was probably the best fastball we’ve seen all year, but what didn’t look like Keegan early in the game was once he started making pitches it’s like he threw an extra pitch or two to each batter.
“Earlier in the year, on his normal routine, he was just executing pitches on a high level, but I thought his best three batters were the last three that he faced Saturday. We’re going to try to take that as a positive moving in and hopefully we’ll see Keegan get back to executing pitches now that he’s had an outing in College Station.”
It was the lack of offensive production that hurt the Tigers at Texas A&M with the Tigers scoring just six runs in three games against the Aggies. Because of that the batting order looked a lot different on Tuesday night at Samford with Jonah Todd back in the leadoff spot, Bo Decker back in the lineup in left field after missing more than a month with an ankle injury and freshman Conor Davis in the DH role.
Putting all those pieces together with Robert, Davis and Dylan Ingram in the middle of the order proved to be the right move against the Bulldogs and Butch Thompson said fans will likely see it moving forward.
“I thought we got a little more physical with the lineup by getting Dylan Ingram at first base, Daniel Robert in the outfield, then letting Conor Davis DH and the return of Bo Decker in the outfield,” the coach said. “We feel like getting all four of those guys in the lineup made us strong. It bulked up a little power and a few more threats in our lineup. I think, overall, we liked the look of that. I think we’ll see that again this weekend, or at least try it.”
Game times for the series are set for 6 p.m. CDT on Thursday, 5 p.m. on Friday and 1 p.m. on Saturday. Thursday’s game can be seen on the SEC Network.
Top Offensive Players: Auburn
Jonah Todd, .362, 10 2B, 32 runs scored
Conor Davis, .333, 7 2B, 15 RBI in 60 at-bats
Daniel Robert, .320, 3 HR, 30 RBI
Top Offensive Players: Tennessee
Jordan Rodgers, .375, 4 HR, 20 RBI
Jeff Moberg, .355, 6 HR, 19 RBI
Pitching Rotation: Auburn
Thursday: Casey Mize, 5-1, 1.37 ERA
Friday: Keegan Thompson, 4-1, 1.27 ERA
Saturday: Davis Daniel, 2-2, 4.86 ERA
Pitching Rotation: Tennessee
Thursday: RHP Hunter Martin, 4-2, 3.56 ERA
Friday: RHP Garrett Stallings, 2-0, 3.00 ERA