Mix And Match Tigers Prepare To Open SEC Play

The Auburn baseball Tigers take on the Kentucky Wildcats this weekend in a three-game series at Plainsman Park.

Auburn, Ala.--Coming into the 2004 baseball season depth and pitching were supposed to be the strengths of an Auburn team hoping to build on the disappointment of last season's NCAA Regional season. That has turned out to be a long way from reality as injuries and inconsistent pitching have left Coach Steve Renfroe and the seventh-ranked Tigers (16-3) shaking their heads as they begin conference play this weeekend against Kentucky at Plainsman Park.

Offensively, the losses of both Karl Amonite and Tyler Johnstone have left holes on the corner spots in the infield and left the coaching staff shaking their heads to try to piece lineups together every day. Despite a stellar 16-3 record, including a 6-1 mark against ranked teams, the injuries have left the Tigers not only lacking in the field but on the mound said Renfroe, who plans to start Arnold Hughey on Friday and Mike Felix (2-0, 2.78 ERA) on Saturday, but is undecided about Sunday's starter.

"Arnold Hughey and Mike Felix are the two guys we're going to go with," Renfroe says. "Arnie has thrown well (4-0, 3.62 ERA). The rotation has developed on just not knowing who the third guy is going to be. We've just bumped those guys up and that's why Arnie is Friday and Mike is Saturday.

"Early on with Karl and Tyler we were going to be able to catch Ben (Ben Maitland) and Bell (Josh Bell) would have pitched and Sullivan (Josh Sullivan) would have pitched very early. Both of them would have been ready by now to do a lot of pitching, but they've had to be in the field for us. We're going to attack Friday and Saturday and see who's left standing on Sunday."

Josh Bell could become Auburn's third starter.

Despite pitching well this season in both starting and relieving roles, senior Cory Dueitt will go back to the bullpen this weekend in all likelihood as the Tigers look for a consistent third starter from a group of pitchers including Bell. Renfroe says despite Dueitt's abilities he feels like the team is better with the senior in the pen.

"We haven't had three starters that have pitched well," Renfroe notes. "That is what has led to it. That's just the facts. There is no other way to look at it. There is a point in time where you just have to look at what's happened on the field. I think Arnie has thrown well of late and I think Mike Felix has thrown well. He battles and has had good stuff. I think he's going to get better. After that we just haven't been able to do it there. I think Cory is really suited for the pen. I think he's better in the pen. I think he realizes that."

With Bell likely to get more work on the mound from now on the Tigers will try to alleviate his work behind the plate, putting the job in the hands of junior college transfers Mike Hyntka and Maitland. Coming back from an eye injury, Maitland caught Wednesday night's game against Troy State and is a strong defensive player as is Hyntka. Bell will likely become Auburn's third baseman on most days with Sullivan moving to first base or as Auburn's designated hitter.

Auburn's scramble for a solid lineup comes just in time to welcome the SEC schedule into play with the Kentucky Wildcats coming to town this weekend for the opening weekend of play. With a record of 12-5 overall Kentucky has been solid this season, particularly at the plate. The Wildcats enter the weekend hitting .340 as a team with 19 home runs in 17 games. Renfroe says this weekend will be a tough one for his team, particularly on the mound.

Mike Hyntka will take on an expanded role for the Tigers.

"We'll face a Kentucky team that their numbers are outstanding," Renfroe says. "Their offensive numbers are really, really good. I know the pitchers they have from last year finished with an outstanding finish. They'll be a good and tough opponent, probably as tough as we've played including Clemson."

Leading the way at the plate is Mike Breyman, who is hitting .429 with two triples, three home runs and 14 runs batted in this season. Next is Spencer Graeter with a .397 average, two home runs and 15 RBI. The power comes from Caleb Stewart, who his hitting .384 with five home runs and 19 runs batted in.

For Auburn center fielder Clete Thomas leads the way at the plate for a team hitting just .281 collectively with 11 home runs in 19 games. Thomas has an average of .361 this season with a team-high eight doubles and a perfect 11-11 in stolen bases. Bell provides the power for the Tigers with six home runs and an average of .338 this season. He leads the team with 22 runs batted in.

The pitching matchups for the weekend are Hughey squaring off against Kalen Gibson on Friday night. The right-handed Gibson is 1-0 with a 5.32 ERA. Saturday, Felix will face senior right-hander Seth Stanley from Kentucky. Stanley is 4-0 with a 4.80 ERA. Sunday's starter for Kentucky is scheduled to be sophomore lefty Chris Snipp, who is 1-2 with a 8.82 ERA.

Game times for the weekend are 6:30 p.m. on Friday night, 3 p.m. on Saturday at 12:15 on Sunday.

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