In his first season as Auburn's head baseball coach, Tommy Slater said his team's effort has been its strong point. "Our kids are just going out and playing hard and trying to compete every single day," Slater said. "Last week was a good week for us going on the road and winning a game at Georgia Tech and then two of three in Baton Rouge. I'm just proud about the way our guys have competed and gone about their business."
The Tigers may catch a break this week against the Razorbacks as two of their best players have been suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules. Leading hitter Casey Rowlett and second-leading hitter Scott Bridges are out for this weekend's series and that is a big blow to the Arkansas offense. With the players in the lineup the team is hitting .332. Without them the average goes down to .302. The Hogs also lose 38 stolen bases. Slater said that is obviously a huge loss, but added he's confident the team will come to Plainsman Park ready to play.
"They are both great players," Slater said. "Coach (Dave) Van Horn and his staff do such a great job. They've got so many good players there. I'm sure they'll handle it well. Having played against them last year when they came on the road to Gainesville when I was at the University of Florida, they were pretty focused there. I just really like the way they play and the way their team goes about their business. I know that they'll be very focused and ready to play against us."
Josh Bell has thrown out 14 attempted base stealers this season.
With its best two hitters out of the lineup, Arkansas will counter with a team that depends more on power than speed. Trying to counter that is an Auburn pitching staff that has improved each weekend this season. Leading the way is junior starter Josh Sullivan. With a record of 4-2, Sullivan has an ERA of just 2.31 in 50 2/3 innings this season and has become Auburn's go to man on the mound.
"He is such a good athlete and has such great composure and mound presence," Slater said. "You could also see day-to-day in the fall that he was getting better. His arm works really well and he's got a good body. He's got good stuff on two different types of breaking balls. To be honest with you, when I saw it, it was a no brainer. Make no mistake about it, he's our best guy. He's far and away the best pitcher on our staff."
Sullivan will start on Saturday for the Tigers while senior Arnold Hughey gets the call on Friday and Josh Blake on Sunday.
Hughey is 2-2 with a 3.97 ERA this season in 45 1/3 innings and has walked just four while striking out 36. Blake is 2-2 with a 6.75 earned run average, but has walked 10 in just 24 innings of work.
At the plate the Tigers continue to be paced by Karl Amonite. Hitting .333 in SEC play, Amonite is at .417 overall with five home runs and 34 runs batted in.
The player coming on strong for Auburn is catcher Josh Bell. The SEC Player of the Week after his three home run week, Bell is hitting .294 with three home runs and 31 runs batted in. In SEC games his average is.375 and he's hit Auburn's only two home runs in conference play. Of the 24 RBI against SEC foes, eight have come from Bell. Slater said that he has no doubt that Bell would come on because of the work he's put in since last fall.
"Belly may have started off a little cold, but his work never stopped," Slater said. "He's been getting a lot of extra BP (batting practice) and a lot of extra work in the cages and on the field. You're just trying to get in a rhythm. You go through periods of the season as a hitter where you're going good and some you're going bad and some you're going okay. Josh, in the last two weeks, has found his rhythm at the plate and he's seeing the ball well and his timing is good."
Game times for the weekend are 7 p.m. on Friday, 4 p.m. on Saturday and 10:30 a.m. on Sunday. Both teams enter the weekend series at 3-3 in conference play.