Winners of 10-straight games and 12 of their last 13, the ninth-ranked Rebels present the Tigers with a stern test as they try to get back on the winning track in conference play.
The weekend continues a tough stretch for the Tigers with three of their last four conference series on the road and 10 of 16 games overall away from Plainsman Park. The three Ole Miss games will also constitute the eighth, ninth and tenth of the season against Top 10 competition for Auburn, a stretch that began with a road trip to Clemson back in February.
Once again the pressure will be on Auburn's pitching staff to get the job done, something it has failed to do of late. In the first 28 games of the season the Tigers didn't allow a team to score over eight runs in a single game and just over seven twice. However, that has changed since a trip to Florida in late March. In the last eight games Auburn has allowed nine runs four times and that is a concern for Auburn head coach Steve Renfroe.
That concern has caused him to shake up the starting rotation this weekend. Instead of Eric Brandon getting a start, Auburn will instead turn to junior college transfer Mike Mueller to get the job done. With a record of 1-0 on the year with a 0.00 ERA in 11 and two/thirds innings pitched, the big right-hander will get just his third start of the season on Sunday against freshman right-hander Alan Horne for the Rebels. Horne is 1-1 with an ERA of 5.91 in six starts.
There is also a shake-up on Friday night as sophomore Colby Paxton gets the nod against junior J.R. Pickens from Ole Miss. Paxton is 7-2 with an ERA of 3.69 while Pickens is 6-1 with a sparkling 2.66 earned run average. Paxton had been pitching the second game of three-game series.
The pitching matchup of the weekend should be on Saturday when junior Levale Speigner goes against senior Pete Montrenes from Ole Miss. Speigner, roughed up in his last start against LSU, is 6-3 with an ERA of 3.88 while Montrenes is 7-2 with a 3.96 earned run average.
"Each week the ante goes up and it's no different this weekend," Renfroe said. "We're going to go play a Top 10 team on the road. They're starting to play true to form. They are probably the hottest team other than Alabama. They have reeled off six-straight conference wins, maybe it's eight now. They're really playing well. They are very talented. They kept some older guys and had some drafts (high school players who were drafted) show up. It will be a great atmosphere to be in and we'll have a tough task. We're just ready to go out and get back to pitching and defense and scrapping."
While the pitching has been having problems of late, the offense is beginning to show signs of life with 21 runs scored and 34 hits in the last three games. Part of that is due to a change in the batting order that has put scrappy Jonathan Schuerholz at the top of the order and moved Javon Moran to the number three spot. While he hasn't hit the ball well of late, Schuerholz has continued to get on base and that's the top priority for the lead-off man. Schuerholz is also a perfect 15-of-15 in stolen base attempts and gives the Tigers a solid running threat at the top of the order. Moran has responded well to the third hole with two hits and two runs batted in against Georgia Tech on Tuesday night and Renfroe said they'll likely keep things the same at the top of the order this weekend.
"With men on base he seems to drive them in," Renfroe said of Moran. "When he's leading off he's just not as good. His on-base percentage shows you that. Even though Jonathan didn't swing the bat well he was on base at least a couple of times (Tuesday). And Jon is actually a better base stealer than Javon, that's all there is to it."
While the top of the order continues to produce, it's in the middle where the Tigers have struggled. Other than Bobby Huddleston, who continues to lead the team with a .413 batting average, the guys around him have been disappointing of late. One player who has to get his stroke back for the Tigers to be where they want to be is catcher Trent Pratt. With just five hits in his last 24 at-bats and only four runs batted in, Pratt has to get return to the form that had him hitting .347 after the North Carolina series in early March for Auburn to make a run at the Western Division title.
Scott Schade continues to be a steady bat in the order for Auburn but must cut down on his strikeouts for the Tigers to put more runs on the board. He has at least one hit in 13 of Auburn's last 15 games, but has struck out 16 times in his last 12 games. If he can reduce that number this weekend the Tigers have a chance to gain ground on the leaders heading into the second half of the conference schedule.
For Auburn fans not making the trip to Oxford there will be television coverage for two of the three games over the weekend. Friday's game will be televised by Comcast Sports Southeast at 6:30 p.m. while Saturday's game is the SEC-TV Game of the Week and will be broadcast by Fox SportsNet South at 3 p.m. The first pitch for Sunday's game is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. and there is no television.