Baseball Tigers Hit The Road For Big Test

The Auburn Tigers get their first stern test of the 2002 season when they travel to South Carolina to face the Clemson Tigers, a team that returns seven position players off a squad that lost to eventual College World Series champion Miami last year in the super regionals.

Clemson, S.C.--After a relatively easy schedule to open the season, Coach Steve Renfroe and the 25th-ranked Auburn Tigers take to the road this weekend to begin the meat of their schedule when they face third-ranked Clemson in a three-game series that opens on Friday.

Auburn comes in at 7-1 on the season while Clemson opens its season this weekend.

For Auburn it's a chance for a group of young and inexperienced players to get their first taste of what college baseball is all about when you play on the road. Traveling to one of the tougher places to play in the country, this group should know a lot more about themselves when they arrive back in Auburn late Sunday night.

"We're going to have 18 guys probably that have never been in this atmosphere," Renfroe says. "A lot of guys have never done this and so we're going to do that 10 times in our league and that's why we picked Clemson up and North Carolina and Georgia Tech. I think we need to do that. They need to go there and get somebody that's ragging them and getting after them. I think that will help us down the road."

Right now the thing that may help Auburn the most is the experienced pitching staff that will take the mound this weekend. Friday starter Levale Speigner along with Saturday's starter Colby Paxton and Sunday's starter Eric Brandon have all been through the wars of Southeastern Conference play. Speigner, for one, says this weekend is crucial as an early test for his team.

"I think it's definitely an early challenge of what we're going to see in the SEC," Speigner says. "It's going to tell us how we're going to look in the SEC. We're young and this is going to be our first challenge of the kind of baseball we'll see in the SEC. They have three good arms going Friday, Saturday and Sunday and guys coming out of the pen that are able to hit their spots. The big thing for the pitchers is they're going to have some guys that can swing it one through nine and we'll just have to be ready. I think it will be a great challenge for us."

Challenge is almost an understatement when you take a look at the Clemson lineup. With power and speed throughout the batting order, it will be up to the Auburn pitchers to keep this one close and let the surprising offense score enough runs to get the win. For Auburn to be successful, the Tigers need to keep everybody's All-American Jeff Baker from taking over games with his bat. Coming off a season in which he hit 23 home runs and drove home 75 runs while hitting .369, Baker is the leading returning home run hitter in the country.

However, Baker isn't the only bat in the Clemson lineup. Shortstop Khalil Greene, first baseman Michael Johnson and designated hitter Jarrod Schmidt all have the capabilities to take the ball deep at any time. Greene hit .303 with 12 home runs and 52 runs batted in while Johnson hit .321 with 18 home runs and 54 runs batted in. Schmidt, who is also expected to double as Clemson's closer, hit .298 with 16 home runs and 51 runs batted in while also compiling a 7-3 record with an ERA of 4.34.

On the mound for Clemson in a starting role on Friday is one of the top pitchers in the nation in right-hander Steve Reba. At 12-3 last season with an ERA of just 2.58 in 109 innings pitched, he will face Auburn ace Speigner in what is expected to be one of the better pitching match-ups of the season. Speigner is 2-0 with an ERA of 3.00 in 12 innings pitched.

Saturday has Paxton going for Auburn against right-hander Matt Henrie from Clemson. Paxton is 2-0 on the season with an ERA of 3.27 in 11 innings pitched while Henrie was 6-3 last season with an ERA of 3.06.

Sunday sees Brandon against Steven Jackson for Clemson. Brandon is 1-0 with an ERA of 2.70 in 12 innings while Jackson was 2-1 last year with an ERA of 5.35.

Eric Brandon will get the start on Sunday although he'll be under a strict pitch count.

Although the Clemson Tigers have been ranked highly because of their offensive prowess, they aren't the only Tigers that can swing the stick. Auburn has come out this season and bombarded pitching up and down the batting order. While several players have stood out, it has been the hitting of catcher/designated hitters Trent Pratt and Bobby Huddleston that has carried this team. Hitting .536 with two home runs and 13 runs batted in just eight games, Huddleston has shown the ability to hit to all fields this season, something he has struggled with in the past. A consistent hitter, Huddleston has seven multi-hit games this year out of eight contests.

Bobby Huddleston

For Pratt is has been all about production. Leading the team with 18 runs batted in, the senior really opened it up against Marshall last weekend when he hit .667 with two home runs, three doubles and 11 runs batted in for the three games alone. His production, along with that of Huddleston, will be key for Auburn this weekend as the Tigers hit the road for the first time this season.

Trent Pratt leads the Tigers with three home runs.

The first pitch for Friday is scheduled for 2 p.m. Central time and 1 p.m. for Saturday's game. Sunday the teams meet beginning at 1:00 Central time.

* * *

Discuss Auburn sports With Mark Murphy and Jason Caldwell on the Auburn fans only Tiger Ticket Premium Forum. It is free to Tiger Ticket subscribers.

Inside The AU Tigers Top Stories