Tigers To Open SEC Play Against No. 25 Vols

Auburn, Ala.–-The road gets tougher for the Auburn baseball Tigers this weekend as they entertain the 25th-ranked <A HREF=http://tennessee.Scout.com>Tennessee</A> Volunteers in a three-game series at Plainsman Park. <p>

After playing six games against ranked teams already this season, Auburn faces a 2004 NCAA Regional team in 14 of its next 15 contests, beginning with the Vols on Friday evening.

Both teams enter with outstanding records, Auburn at 15-5 and Tennessee at 14-4, and have gone about them in similar ways. Mixing in a diet of tough games to go along with games designed to build confidence, the Vols are off to a torrid start both at the plate and on the mound. Auburn's Tom Slater said that the test is a big one for his club because of the talent on hand in Knoxville, particularly on the pitching staff.

"Tennessee is bringing a very good ball club in," Slater says. "They are swinging the bats extremely well, they are playing great defense, and have a number of stolen bases. Their pitching staff is throwing extremely well led off by junior right-hander Luke Hochevar. He should be a high draft pick this June and has been a very good pitcher in this league the last few years."

Tyler Johnstone is second on the Auburn team with eight stolen bases.

A dominating figure on the mound, Hochevar leads a very good pitching staff into this weekend's series. One of the best players in the country, Hochevar is 4-1 with a 1.59 ERA this season and has given up just 24 hits in 34 innings. He has struck out 43 hitters and given up just five walks. He will match up Friday against Auburn senior Arnold Hughey, who is 2-1 with a 3.82 ERA in 33 innings.

Saturday may be the best pitching matchup of the weekend in the SEC as Auburn junior Josh Sullivan faces off against Vol pitcher Sean Watson. The reigning SEC Pitcher of the Week, Sullivan is 3-1 with a 2.09 ERA. Watson has been just about as dominant with a record of 4-1 and an earned run average of 2.90.

Josh Blake again gets the call for the Tigers on Sunday against Tennessee freshman phenom James Adkins. Blake is 2-1 with a 4.82 ERA while Adkins is 3-1 with a 1.73 earned run average. The left-hander has given up just 22 hits in 36 1/3 innings and has struck out 45 batters.

At the plate the Vols are dangerous up and down the order. With a team batting average of .344 and 24 home runs, Tennessee is capable of scoring with anyone at the plate. They are led at the plate by Kelly Edmundson with a .441 average and one home run.

Perhaps Tennessee's top player on offense is Eli Iorg. The former Samford player is hitting .390, leads the team in RBI with 22 and is tied for the team lead in home runs with six.

Coach Tom Slater

"He's a very good player," Slater says of Iorg. "I remember him when he was at Samford. He went on his mission, he's a Mormon kid, then after his mission he went to Tennessee. He's a very good hitter. Their whole family is good. Obviously their dad (who played in the big leagues) but also a little brother who's at Alabama. He's a good hitter."

For the Tigers the lineup revolves around the top of the order in Tyler Johnstone, Clete Thomas and Karl Amonite. Amonite leads the Tigers in most offensive catagories, hitting .474 with five home runs, nine doubles and 31 runs batted in. Johnstone is next at .432 with five doubles and 25 runs scored. Thomas is hitting .395 on the season with eight doubles, two home runs and has scored a team-high 29 runs.

Auburn's injury situation looks to be getting better as center fielder Bruce Edwards could return to the lineup this weekend if completely healthy. Edwards has been sidelined with a strained groin for much of the last two weeks and his absence has affected the Auburn defense in the outfield.

Also expected to get some work over the weekend is sophomore pitcher Mike Felix. He was scheduled to start against Troy on Tuesday, but instead threw in an intrasquad game. Slater says Felix looked good and is now injury free.

Another injured player who has come back for the Tigers is catcher Joey Huskins. Splitting time with Josh Bell behind the plate since coming back from a broken hand, Huskins is hitting just .192. That's something that Slater says they're hoping changes for the better with more at-bats down the road.

"He's probably the one guy that we've been investing some at-bats in," Slater notes. "He's behind everybody else because he's about 50 at-bats behind everybody due to the broken hand early in the season.

"He really receives well and blocks well," Slatere adds. "The offense needs to come around. We're going to make a mechanical adjustment with him in practice this week. He's been standing a little too tall and he's a little off-balance at the plate. We just need to get more flex in his knees at the plate and he'll be fine. He's a good player."

Game times for the weekend will be 7 p.m. on Friday, 4 p.m. on Saturday following the A-Day football game at Jordan-Hare Stadium and 1 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are on sale at the coliseum box office or online at www.auburntigers.com.

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