Like any trip to Alex Box Stadium, this year's task will be a difficult one for Auburn as it faces what is likely the most talented team in the league this season. Throw in the fact that more than 7,000 fans are expected fot every game and you have a tough task for a relatively inexperienced Auburn club. Coach Tommy Slater said that he believes Auburn's early season schedule has the team prepared for what awaits them this weekend.
"The fact that we've played a good schedule, the game isn't going to speed up on our guys all of the sudden because we're playing better competition within the league," Slater said. "All of our early season work, not only against Clemson and Florida State but also against the Elons and VMIs and didn't give us games, but made us play to win. I think that's the key to preparing a club to face top-notch competition like we'll see this weekend against LSU."
When facing LSU you automatically think offense with the history of the home run glory days and players like Brandon Larsen, Eddie Furness, Todd Walker and others, but where LSU has always made its hay is on the pitcher's mound and this season is no different. Starting pitchers Lane Mestepay, Clay Dirks and Greg Smith keep with a strong tradition of LSU pitchers and Slater said they can definitely get the job done.
"If you go back through the years you think of Ben McDonald and Scott Schultz and (Kurt) Ainsworth and Eddie Yarnall and this year you have Mestepay (Lane Mestepay) who reminds me of Hayden Gliemmo," Slater said. "Dirks (Clay Dirks) is more like Yarnall, a power lefty. They've always had good arms. You look at their numbers right now they have 187 innings pitched and 164 strikeouts with only 70 walks. That's pretty good. Opponents are hitting .240 against them. They're just a good club."
Mestepay is a veteran of SEC play since dominating the opposition as a freshman in the 2001 season. That year he was LSU's top pitcher with an 11-3 record and 3.75 ERA. He followed that up with 11 more wins as a sophomore, but 281 2/3 innings in two seasons was too much for his body to take. He missed the entire 2003 season after shoulder surgery, but recovered to throw 100 innings last season and compile a 7-4 record. This year he has started off hot. He currently leads LSU with a 5-1 record and has a minuscule 1.91 ERA. He will face Auburn's Arnold Hughey in the series opener on Friday night.
Saturday Auburn's Josh Sullivan will square off against Dirks for the Fighting Tigers. Dirks comes in at 4-1 with a 2.72 ERA. Sunday has Josh Blake on the mound for Auburn against Smith for LSU. Smith is 5-0 with a 2.93 ERA this season.
At the plate LSU does things differently than in past years where the home run was the major emphasis. They still have power, as evidenced by the team's 30 home runs this season, but the Tigers also win games by putting the ball in play.
Ryan Patterson leads the team in almost every offensive catagory, hitting .415 with 10 home runs, 21 runs batted in, 34 hits and seven doubles.
Also hitting the ball well is veteran Clay Harris. The big right-hander is hitting .405 with four home runs, 20 runs RBI and a team-high nine doubles. Only two other regulars are over .300 for LSU as both Nick Stavihoha and Blake Gill have started off the season well.
Despite a team batting average of just .301 at the moment, Slater said that LSU is a very good hitting team and a tough team to pitch to because of the way they approach things at the plate.
"They think offense because everybody thinks back to the "Gorilla Ball" days of minus five bats (bats that weighed five less ounces than their length)," Slater said. "They used to hit a lot of home runs. Personally, I think, from an offensive perspective they're better since Turtle (Thomas) has been there than before. I saw a huge difference in their hitters the first year Turtle got there, just in approach. It used to be you would strike out 13-15 of LSU's guys and they would hit two or three three-run homers. They're a tougher team to play against offensively because the ball is going to be in play."
Game times for the weekend series are 6:30 on Friday night, 2 p.m. on Saturday and 1 p.m. on Sunday. Auburn will be looking to win the series against LSU for the first time since doing so in Baton Rouge four years ago.