Gators Present Tough Test For Tigers

Auburn will face the Florida Gators in a three-game series this weekend at Plainsman Park.

Auburn, Ala.–-At the halfway point of the SEC baseball schedule the 23rd-ranked Auburn Tigers (25-14, 8-7) find themselves one game out of first place in the Western Division as they prepare to face the Eastern Division leading and fifth-ranked Florida Gators (27-10, 10-5) this weekend for a three-game series at Plainsman Park.

Unfortunately for Coach Tommy Slater's team, they're also one game out of last place in the division as just two games separate all six teams in the standings. Slater said that makes this weekend's series very big, but not any bigger than the usual SEC weekend.

"If you look at the league and look at the standings, every weekend in this league is tough and every weekend is important," he says "I don't think any one is more important than another. This is such a competitive league and any weekend, because there's so much parity in our league, you can go up or go down. They are all important. There's no weekend in this league that is more important than another. Every one of them is very important. I don't think you put emphasis on weekend more than another."

Something that makes this series special for Slater is that just last season he was in the other dugout as an assistant coach for the Gators and Coach Pat McMahon. In his only season in Gainesville, Slater quickly built a strong bond with the team as they had one of the best offensive years in school history. Now at Auburn he says that this weekend will be a little different, but won't matter to the two teams in the dugout.

"Obviously I have close relationships with the players and coaches there because you work closely with those guys throughout the process of trying to be a better baseball player and team," Slater says. "Ross Jones, their pitching, and I are close friends. We still probably talk once a week about recruiting and other teams in the league and how we're going to beat them. Stuff like that.

"Anytime you go out to play you're going out to win, regardless of the fact if you know someone well or not," Slater adds. "Obviously I know the Florida coaches and the Florida players extremely well. I have a lot of close relationships with both the coaches and the players, which you're going to have when you coach at a school. It will be fun to see those guys and say hello, but I promise you when the game starts they will be trying to kick Auburn's butt and I can promise you we'll be trying to kick their butt."

Both Michael Nix and John Madden were named to the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Stopper of the Year Award Midseason Watch List.

The Gators come into this year's series with another strong offensive club led by Jeff Corsaletti at the plate. Hitting .416 with six home runs and 35 runs batted in, Corsaletti is part of an offense that has hit 46 home runs this season and outscored opponents by 143 runs.

The power in the lineup comes from Matt LaPorta, who has 13 home runs and 43 RBI. Brian Leclerc is just behind him with eight home runs and 34 runs batted in. As a team the Gators have six players with at least 20 RBI and 10 with more than 10 runs batted in.

"They are very athletic," Slater says. "They can run. They've got guys that hit with power. Offensively, this is the best club we'll play this year. Obviously I know them well because I was coaching there a year ago. They like to compete. Whether it's (Adam) Davis, Corsaletti at the top of the lineup who can all fly and hit, or whether it's LaPorta or Leclair or (Jared) Kubin, the guys they've got with some juice, there's just a lot of ways they can hurt you and beat you. Coach McMahon, that's the way he wants his clubs to be. Ideally he wants to be able to beat you with both the speed and power game. They are certainly capable of that."

On the mound the Gators feature one of the top pitching staffs in the league with a team ERA of 3.48. The starters on both Friday and Saturday, while their earned run averages are not spectacular, are both veterans that have been through the wars in the SEC. Senior Tommy Boss gets the call on Friday against Auburn's Arnold Hughey. Boss is 4-2 with a 4.66 ERA while Hughey enters at 3-3 and an earned run average of 3.88.

Saturday has former Ole Miss pitcher Alan Horne throwing for the Gators against Josh Sullivan for the Tigers. One of the nation's top pitchers three years ago coming out of Marianna, Fla., Horne is 3-2 this year and an earned run average of 4.30. Sullivan is 6-3 with an ERA of 3.78. Both teams are listed as TBA on Sunday.

In the bullpen for the Gators both Darren O'Day and Conner Falkenbach can get the job done. Like John Madden and Michael Nix for Auburn, they are the main cogs out of the pen for the Gators with 19 and 26 appearances respectively. O'Day is 5-3 with a 2.67 ERA and has four saves. Falkenbach is 2-1 with an ERA of 2.95 and has three saves.

For Auburn both Madden and Nix have been dominating. Madden leads the team and is seventh in the country with a 1.07 ERA in 26 appearances and has a record of 6-0 with five saves. Nix has appeared in 20 games and is 4-1 with 10 saves, which is fourth in the country.

The Florida staff will face an Auburn team that has had different players carry the load at different times this season. Early on it was the combination of Karl Amonite and Tyler Johnstone that did much of the damage, but now Josh Bell is bearing the weight of the offense with both Clete Thomas and Jeff Boutwell helping in the charge.

Bell currently has an 18-game hitting streak and is hitting .479 during the stretch with seven home runs, 22 RBI and a slugging percentage of .887. Since starting the streak Bell has raised his batting average from .241 to .344.

Boutwell's rise has been just as dramatic. Since starting against Georgia Tech on April 5, the junior has raised his average 122 points to .360 and has six of his seven runs batted in this season. Thomas has 15 hits in his last 42 at-bats, including three games out of the last 10 where he's recorded at least three hits. The junior has hit safely in eight of his last 10 games and has raised his average 14 points.

Game times for the weekend series are 7 p.m. on Friday, 4 p.m. on Saturday and 1 p.m. on Sunday. Friday night's game will be shown on Cox Sports and is the only television for the weekend.

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