Battle Of The Cats Set For Lexington

Auburn looks to keep pace in the SEC's Western Division as it travels to Kentucky for a three-game series this weekend.

Auburn, Ala.-–The 23rd-ranked Auburn Tigers take to the road once again this weekend as they travel to Kentucky to face the Wildcats in a three-game series at Applebee's Park. Auburn enters with a record of 23-13 overall, 6-6 in conference play, while Kentucky is 16-15 overall, 1-10 in conference action.

Even though Kentucky finds itself in last place in the SEC standings, they are coming off a solid weekend against Tennessee when they won a game and lost Sunday's game in 10 innings. Auburn's Tommy Slater said that despite the disparity in records between the two teams this will be a difficult weekend for the Tigers.

"We're very excited to be going to play Kentucky this weekend," Slater said. "I know that Coach (John) Cohen has done a tremendous job. Talking to a lot of people around the league everyone has told me Kentucky is much improved and way more athletic than they were a year ago. All you have to do is look at their hitting statistics and base stealing statistics to see that they're doing a great job. They are much improved in all facets of the game. I know he's got a young club, very freshmen and sophomore oriented, and it seems as though they're starting to play their best ball of the year.

"They are a good club," Slater added. "Don't let their record in the league fool you. They are very good on offense. I have talked to several people in the league that have already played them and they said they swing the bats really well. That's no big surprise because John does a great job with offense."

The Wildcats have been strong at the plate this season, hitting .311 as a team with 24 home runs and 75 doubles to go along with 42 stolen bases. Leading the way is John Shelby, who is hitting .369 with seven home runs and 34 runs batted in. He also has 15 stolen bases in 18 attempts and is second on the team with three triples. Both Antone DeJesus and Billy Grace are also big-time hitters for Kentucky, DeJesus hitting .347 with seven doubles and four triples and Grace second on the team with six home runs and 30 RBI. Slater said that while most think the Tigers will walk through the weekend, Kentucky is easily good enough to make this Auburn team pay for not playing well.

"Obviously we've got so many guys who have never played in the league before playing for us," Slater said. "I told the club this week and we talked about it Monday, we have been good enough that we feel like we can go play with anybody in the country and have a chance to win. We also know that we're bad enough that anyone can beat us. That's just the facts of this club. We need to play well in every facet of the game if we expect to win...we're not a club that can go out and throw our hats on the field and expect to win."

Clete Thomas is hitting .340 with five home runs and four steals. He also leads Auburn in stolen bases at a perfect 16-16.

Auburn continues to be led at the plate by senior first baseman Karl Amonite. Although his average has dropped over 100 points since the Clemson series back in early March, Amonite is still hitting .385 with six home runs and 39 runs batted in. By contrast, catcher Josh Bell has raised his average 87 points in that same span and is now hitting .324 with six home runs and 38 RBI. In conference play Bell leads Auburn with a .412 average and 15 RBI in 12 games. The Tigers are hitting just .267 in league play while opponents are hitting .262.

On the mound the Wildcats will send a very good starter to the mound on Friday night in junior right-hander Kalen Gibson. Currently 4-1 with a 4.75 ERA, Gibson has struck out 29 in 36 innings of work. He will face off against Auburn's Arnold Hughey. Hughey is 3-3 with a 3.59 earned run average this season. Saturday Josh Sullivan (6-2, 3.38 ERA) will take the mound for Auburn while Kentucky is TBA. Auburn's Sunday starter is yet to be determined while Kentucky's Andrew Albers gets the nod. Albers is 3-3 with a 5.62 earned run average on the year.

Auburn's bullpen has been a team strength this season and that is where Slater will turn on Sunday to get the job done. Both Jared Shore (0-1, 3.20) and Cliff Mullins (1-0, 2.35) are expected to get some work and it's possible that Josh Blake (2-3, 7.27) could get into the mix as well. Slater said that Sunday's pitching rotation is just going to depend on how deep they need to get into the pen in the first two games.

"We're going to try our best to win Friday and Saturday and then depending on how our bullpen has been used that will determine who pitches on Sunday," Slater said. "He (Mullins) is obviously a three-pitch guy like Shore, they are very similar, who threw tremendous for us last weekend. Cliff has also been a very valuable part of our bullpen. He's pitched well out of the bullpen a number of times.

"In Baton Rouge I believe he threw all three games down there, at least two of the three out of the bullpen. We're not going to weaken our bullpen by naming a Sunday starter now. If I need Cliff to help us win a game on Friday or Saturday then he'll throw. We'll deal with Sunday when we get there."

Currently two games behind Alabama in the Western Division race, Auburn is looking to gain ground this weekend as the Crimson Tide travels to Florida for a tough series between division leaders. In the meantime Auburn will face the bottom dwellar in the SEC. Slater said that getting to eight wins is the goal his team has as they travel to the Bluegrass State this weekend.

"Every SEC weekend is important," Slater said. "Our goal is that we want to be over .500 at the halfway point. We're sitting at 6-6 right now and I think everyone's goal, as you look at the SEC records and everyone is starting to even out, once you get through that 15-game mark everyone wants to be above .500. That's where we want to be. This weekend is important, but it's no more important than the other nine we're going to have to play."

Game times for the weekend are 5:30 p.m. on both Friday and Saturday with Sunday morning's game scheduled for 10 o'clock because of Auburn's travel plans.

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