This should be a classic matchup of good pitching vs. good hitting as the potent Tiger pitching staff faces a Florida team that had nine players hitting over .400 before its weekend series at South Carolina. This one should be fun and if Auburn could escape with a win or two in Gainesville, the Tigers will have set themselves up for a good run at postseason play in 2002.
You can't say enough about the job Kenny Clayton has done for the Tigers this season. Everyone knows the story by now of Clayton being hit in the head on Super Bowl Sunday of 2001 during an intra-squad scrimmage and almost dying on the field at Plainsman Park. Having to teach himself to read and write again and to learn even the most normal of everyday activities, Clayton has come back with a vengeance on the mound this season. Sunday afternoon may have been the crowing achievement in his baseball career as he completely shut down the Tennessee Volunteers in a key situation.
Leading 4-1 in the bottom of the sixth inning, Auburn allowed the leadoff runner to reach base and he advanced to second base on a wild pitch before Clayton was summoned to do his duty. Facing the middle of the order, he retired the next three men in order and kept the run from scoring. That one sequence was the beginning of the end for Tennessee as a fired-up Auburn team came back and scored two runs in the top of the seventh to put the game away and win an important early road series in the SEC.
How important was that road series? Although Tennessee had been struggling, anytime you can win two-out-of-three in another park you have to consider it a big deal. Add to that the fact that the Tigers were playing as many as four freshmen and two junior college transfers for much of the time in the series and you begin to see how big the weekend was. After being swept on the road at Clemson earlier in the season in their only true road test of the year, this team desperately needed to play well in a hostile environment and that it did.
One of the freshmen for Auburn came up with the biggest play of the day on Sunday in the rubber game. Shortstop Chuck Jeroloman, mired in an 0-15 start in conference play, came to the plate with runners on first and second with one out and Auburn leading just 1-0 in the fourth inning. Getting down 0-2, he fought off several pitches before getting one he liked and drilling it over the left fielder's head for a double that scored both runners and gave the Tigers some breathing room. After the game he was all smiles as he remembered the feeling of standing on second base with his first hit in conference play.
"I was just fighting my way to try to get a pitch to handle," Jeroloman said. "He finally hung a change-up to me and I drove it to left center. I was pumped. It was about time that I got a hit. It had been about six games since I had my last hit and it was huge for the team."
No matter what you talk about with this Auburn team, you still have to come back to the pitching staff. In the last seven games, of which the Tigers have won five, the pitching staff has an ERA of just 1.16. Even more impressive is that opponents are hitting only .142 and averaged only two runs and four and a half hits per game during the stretch. If the Tigers can come anywhere close to that this weekend, look out SEC.