Auburn hopes to improve on last weekend's disappointing series loss at home against Kentucky, but Coach Steve Renfroe said this will be a tough weekend to do just that facing a tough Vol team on the road.
"We'll face what I think is one of the top teams in the country in Tennessee," Renfroe says. "They have not lost a game at home. Their offensive numbers are as good as I've seen in a long, long time from a balance standpoint. They never strike out, have lots of walks and good power numbers. They have guys that run all over the field and defend pretty well."
Unlike Auburn, Tennessee has been hit with power at the plate this season. With a team batting average of .349 with 18 home runs and 73 doubles, the Vols have done damage to everyone they've faced this season. Leading the way is Eric King, who is hitting .384 with 10 doubles and 25 runs batted in. He is one of 10 regular players for Tennessee currently hitting over .300 and all have at least four doubles and 10 runs batted in. The power comes from Josh Alley with four home runs and 16 runs batted in.
On the mound the Vols have been just as dominant with a team ERA of just 2.47. Tennessee has allowed just 81 runs in 23 games, an average of less than four per contest. Friday starter Derek Tharpe leads the Vols with a record of 5-0 and an earned run average of just 1.85. The former Samford pitcher has been a thorn in Auburn's side his entire career.
Saturday's starter, Sean Watson, is 3-1 with a 2.56 ERA while Sunday's starter, Ben Riley, is 2-0 with a 2.12 ERA. Renfroe says that the Vols are a good as you will see on the mound this season.
"The pitching numbers are outstanding," Renfroe notes. "This will be the toughest test of the year. The next several weeks we'll face three of the best teams in the country. We're looking forward to going up there to try to get us going in the SEC."
Auburn will counter with inexperience on the mound, but guys who have the talent to get the job done. Friday's starter will be freshman left-hander Mike Felix, who is 2-1 with a 3.08 ERA. On Saturday veteran Arnold Hughey will go for the Tigers. Hughey is 4-1 with a 4.12 earned run average. Sunday has sophomore Josh Bell back for his second career start after pitching well in last Sunday's victory over Kentucky. Bell is 1-0 with a 0.79 ERA this season in 11 1/3 innings pitched.
Renfroe says Bell has a chance to solidify Auburn's rotation with another good outing this weekend "I thought he did well for his first start and not having been out there on a regular basis. All in all I thought he brought a lot of confidence and energy to the mound and I thought our kids fed off that. He had a lot of walks and hit batters, yet he pitched out of jams. Guys start to believe in a kid when he does that. He was really a step up for us."
While Auburn's pitching has been solid for the most part this season, the offense has been anything but that in recent weeks. Not enough clutch hits and way too many strikeouts have become a common theme and this would be a good weekend to get out of that trend. This season Auburn hitters have struck out 174 times while walking just 108 times, not a good sign for a team dependent on getting baserunners and working pitchers to get deep in counts.
One positive has been the recent offensive outputs with a change in the lineup that has Sean Gamble in the leadoff spot and Clete Thomas hitting fourth behind Josh Bell. Just 3-32 in his previous eight games prior to moving to the leadoff spot last Sunday, Gamble has responded with two hits in each game to help the offense. Renfroe says that is a positive for the team heading into this weekend.
"That's kind of what got Sean going, but we're still looking," the coach says. "We're trying to find a catcher, third baseman and first baseman. We've just juggled everything. We're still looking at how to get the best guys we have available in those slots. Clete may hit third for us, we'll just have to see."
Thomas continues to lead Auburn in hitting with a .379 average, a team-leading eight doubles and 13 runs batted in. While Bell continues to hit well with an average of .305 and a team-leading six home runs and 23 runs batted in, his strikeout total is growing rapidly, a concern for the Tigers heading into the meat of conference play. In his last four games Bell is just 3-18 with eight strikeouts. That's something that has to change if the Tigers hope to come out of an offensive swoon in which they've scored just six runs in three conference games this season.
Game times for the weekend are 6 p.m. Central on Friday and Saturday night with a 1 p.m. start on Sunday. Both Saturday and Sunday will be shown live on Comcast Sports Southeast.