After dropping six of their last eight games, the Tigers hope to get back to form against a Bulldog team that has won seven of ten games, including series wins against Georgia and Arkansas.
"We're getting down to the stretch run and this is a big weekend as all of them are," Auburn coach Steve Renfroe said. "Mississippi State is a veteran club, very physical, with a lot of arms. Looking at their offensive numbers they are swinging the bat much better than a year ago. I think they are a quality club. They play defense and of course Ron Polk is one of the premier coaches in the country. Like every weekend this will be a very tough task in the SEC. Every weekend we say the same thing. Our key is to get our starting pitching deep into the game and give us a chance to win late."
Sophomore Eric Brandon returns to the starting rotation this weekend.
If that is to happen Renfroe and company need sophomore Eric Brandon to be back on his game when he takes the mound Friday night to open the series against the Bulldogs' Paul Maholm. Back in the starting rotation after a stint in the bullpen following back-to-back sub-par outings against Florida and LSU, the 3-2 Brandon brings a 4.22 ERA into the game while the ace of the Mississippi State staff is 7-1 with an earned run average of 3.22.
On Saturday the Tigers send current ace Colby Paxton to the mound against senior Tanner Brock from Mississippi State. A winner in six of his last seven starts, the sophomore has already become the first Auburn pitcher since Ryan Halla and Chris Morrison in 1995 to throw two nine-inning complete games in league play in a single season. He hopes to continue that hot streak against Brock, who enters with a record of 4-3 this year with an ERA of 4.34.
On Sunday junior Levale Speigner gets the call against junior Joey Collums from State. Speigner is 6-4 with a 3.78 ERA while Collums is 2-2 with an ERA of 3.15.
While the whole weekend is a series of key match-ups on the mound, without question Friday night is of major importance to Auburn's chances this weekend. With a good outing, Brandon could give the Tigers a much-needed jump on winning the series with Paxton and Speigner waiting in the wings. Another suspect performance would put Auburn squarely behind the eight ball. No matter what happens, Renfroe says he feels like the sophomore is ready to return to form following a couple of good performances out of the Auburn bullpen.
"I thought he threw well at Ole Miss in relief and I thought he threw very well Tuesday at Georgia Tech," Renfroe noted. "We just threw him one inning just as a kind of tune-up, but it looked like Eric's stuff. He was very aggressive in the zone. It was good stuff. He's really the guy we need if we're going to make a run.
"We just felt like it was at a time when he needed to take a look at things and get a few extra times on the mound in the pen," the coach added. "He did that but for us to make a run here down the stretch and get in this we need Eric to be Eric as a starter."
Brandon and the Auburn staff will face a Bulldog team that relies on moving runners along and setting the plate for power man Matthew Brinson. While the MSU team has just 28 home runs on the season, it does a good job of getting people on base and allowing singles and doubles to drive people in. Third in the league with a team on-base percentage of .404, the Bulldogs work pitchers from the first inning and it will be important for Auburn to get ahead in the count in order to make the Mississippi State hitters swing at the pitches they don't want to swing at.
If the Bulldogs can get runners aboard you can be rest assured that Brinson will bring in his fair share before the day is done. Hitting .343 on the season with six home runs and 11 doubles. He makes his living driving them home with an impressive 45 runs batted in this season, which is the fourth best total in the SEC.
Leading the team in hitting is third baseman Steve Gendron at .372. A contact hitter, he doesn't have a home run to his credit this season but has 10 doubles, one triple and 28 runs batted in. As a team the Bulldogs are hitting .306 while limiting opponents to just a .253 average.
For Auburn it's all about which team will show up. Will it be the team that scored 10 runs with three home runs in the Friday night game against Ole Miss last weekend or the team that followed with just three runs the final two games of the series? That is the big question and it's one that seems to be of the neve rending variety.
One thing is for sure and that is that Bobby Huddleston has continued to swing the bat well. One of the few consistent offensive performers for the Tigers, he is hitting .400 on the season with six home runs and 30 runs batted in. Leadoff man Jonathan Schuerholz also continues to swing a hot bat with an average of .369 and an on-base percentage of .476.
A surging Javon Moran has become a threat since being moved out of the leadoff spot and into the number three hole. Hitting .322, he has hit safely in six straight conference games and in nine of ten games overall. In those nine games he has at least two hits in seven of those games. These three must produce and produce big if Auburn hopes to wake up Monday morning still in good shape for a post-season berth.
Game times for the weekend are 6:30 on Friday night, 3 p.m. on Saturday and 1:30 on Sunday afternoon. There is no television coverage on the weekend. Mississippi State leads the all-time series with Auburn 70-66, but the Tigers lead 28-24 over the Bulldogs for games played in Auburn.