Baseball Tigers Face Toughest Road Trip

Junior Levale Speigner has pitched well in previous performances vs. the Tide.

Auburn, Ala.--Levale Speigner says he likes the challenge of playing on the road against a tough opponent in a hostile atmosphere.

The Auburn junior ought to be downright ecstatic this weekend as he and his baseball teammates travel to Sewell-Thomas Stadium on the Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa for a three-game SEC series.

The Tide, which is 13-5 in the league, is fighting to stay at the top of the SEC West after dropping two out of three at home last weekend to Ole Miss. Bama has a one-game lead on the Rebels. Auburn, which is 9-9 in the SEC, is battling to position itself for a spot in the SEC and NCAA tournaments. The Tigers are 1 1/2 games ahead of Arkansas and a half-game behind Mississippi State and LSU, who are tied for fourth in the division.

Speigner, who has been in the arena for previous Auburn-Alabama showdowns, can have a lot to say about postseason play for the Tigers. He is Auburn's Sunday starting pitcher and has been a solid performer since setting foot on campus. In two appearances vs. the Tide, he has allowed just nine hits and one run in 12 1/3 innings.

"This is what you come to a big college for," Speigner says. "Since this is the Auburn-Alabama series, it is going to be a great series."

A standing room only crowd of 6,200-plus is expected in Tuscaloosa for the opening game. The first pitch will be around 6:30 p.m. on Friday as the 35-7 Tide, ranked third, seventh and seventh in the major polls, faces an Auburn team that was ranked earlier this season but is not in the Top 25 this week. The Tigers are 27-15 overall.

Speigner says he likes playing in front of big crowds in pressure situations. "It takes more concentration to pitch when you are away at another park," the right-hander says. "I just try to focus on what is happening on the field and concentrate on that."

Levale Speigner will be going for his eighth win of the season on Friday night.

Friday's game is being telecast by Comcast Sports Southeast while the 3 p.m. Saturday game will be on SEC-TV and Fox Sports Net South. There is no television scheduled for Sunday's game, which pits 7-4 Speigner with his 3.67 earned run average vs. Tide right-hander Shane Sanders, who is 5-1 with a 3.63 earned run average.

"They have a tough lineup and we are going to have to pitch well this week," says Speigner, who helped the Tigers sweep the Tide in a three-game series last season at Plainsman Park. The Tide is hitting .315 as a team, which is fifth in the SEC. Florida is No. 1 by a long shot at .366 with Ole Miss a distant second at .322. Auburn is seventh at .303.

Sewell-Thomas Stadium is a hitter's park, something that Speigner is well aware of as he prepares for the weekend series. "I am going to try to stick to my normal game," he says. "I am going to try to hit my spots and mix it up a little and, hopefully, that works for me."

Speigner pitched well in his last outing on Sunday as the Tigers pounded Mississippi State on Sunday. "Our hitters came out ready to swing the bat in that game," he says. "When that happens, it allows the pitchers to relax."

For Auburn, the hitting has been off and on this year. Coach Steve Renfroe says the Tigers are going to need to put a significant runs on the board each game because the Tide has such good hitting.

Peter Stonard is batting .394 for Bama with four homers and 29 RBI. Jeremy Brown is the top long ball threat. He has 10 homers, 50 RBI and a healthy .353 batting average. Travis Garner is hitting .338 with four homers and 19 RBI. Scott McClanahan is batting .335 with five homers and 40 RBI and Beau Hearod is hitting .325 with eight dingers and 39 runs batted in.

"Stonard, he is really good," Renfroe says. "Brown is dangerous and so is McClanahan. If you look at their lineup, they are all pretty dangerous--Boyd is a four-year guy and Hearod is pretty good. The key for us is not walking guys and making them earn it. We need to get ahead of hitters and be aggressive."

A big reason why the Tide is a Top 10 team is a pitching staff that has put together a 3.38 earned run average. Auburn has a good pitching staff, too, but can't match the Tide's numbers. "Everybody has talked about our pitching, which early was pretty good, but these guys have done it the whole year," Renfroe says of the Bama staff. "They are the No. 1 pitching team in the league." Auburn's ERA has jumped to 4.02, which is sixth in the Southeastern Conference.

The man with the most impressive numbers for the Tide takes the mound in the Friday night opener. Lance Cormier, a senior right-hander, has an 8-1 record with a 2.29 earned run average. He has allowed just 84 hits in 86 1/3 innings pitched with 61 strikeouts and 15 bases on balls. "He is as good as it gets," Renfroe says. "I don't know if he has ever been hit hard."

Renfroe will send sophomore Eric Brandon to the mound to oppose Cormier. The sophomore, who returned to the starting rotation last weekend vs. Mississippi State, has a 3-2 record with a 4.50 earner run average. Of his 17 appearances, nine have come as a starter. He has allowed just 54 hits in 60 innings and has 43 strikeouts to just nine walks.

Eric Brandon threw a perfect game earlier this season.

In the Saturday contest, Colby Paxton will go for the Tigers vs. lefty Jeffrey Norris in battle of sophomores. Paxton was Auburn's hottest starting pitcher until stumbling last Saturday vs. the Bulldogs. He has an 8-3 record with a 4.57 ERA in 11 appearances, all as a starter. Norris is 4-0 with a 1.93 ERA in seven appearances, with five as a starter.

Combine the Tide's hitting and pitching with home field advantage and as Renfroe points out, this will not be an easy task for his Tigers. "We are going to play in the toughest place in the country to play this year," Renfroe says, noting the Tide had not lost at home until dropping two to Ole Miss last weekend. "I think that kind of says it all, but we are looking forward to the test."

Alabama leads the series 105-82 although Auburn has won six of the last 10 meetings. In games played in Tuscaloosa, the Tide enjoys a 52-33 edge.

The Auburn coach says he is encouraged that his team's hitting seems to be warming with the weather. "I think we have swung the bat better the last month," he says. "Versus LSU we swung it well and had good at-bats at Ole Miss, even in the 2-1 game. We had four great at-bats at game time. It was just a great pitched game. I am pleased with the young guys, how they have handled themselves. They have become tougher outs and they are making progress."

The numbers back up Renfroe's statement. Auburn is hitting .308 and averaging 6.7 runs per game in its last three SEC series while hitting just .257 and scoring 4.1 runs per contest in the first three SEC series.

Freshman Tug Hulett is hitting well for the Tigers.

The Tigers have faced plenty of tough competition this year, including a three-game road trip to Clemson, which is ranked No. 1 in the country. Eight of the last 10 games for the Tigers have been played against Top 10 teams.

Auburn is currently in the eighth and final spot to clinch a berth in the SEC Tournament, which will be May 22-26 at the Hoover Met. After the Alabama series, the Tigers will have homes series vs. Vanderbilt and Georgia and a road trip to Arkansas to wrap up the regular season.

"We have pressure on us," Renfroe says. "When you are 9-9 and fighting for a spot that is as much pressure as them fighting for the championship. If you have ever been in that situation, it is really the same so our focus is going to be on baseball.

"I have been in 25 years of Auburn vs. Alabama so there is no reason to treat it any different," Renfroe adds. "Everybody wants to make it out to be the end of the world and the old quote about tiddly-winks, or whatever they play, throw out the records, but I think you play baseball. Our focus is not on the jersey. We have to play baseball for three days and if we don't focus on the game we are not going to be very good. They are outstanding. Their pitching is really amazing when you look at the numbers they have."

The Tigers have some momentum after pounding out 22 hits to score 19 runs in the rubber game of the series on Sunday vs. Mississippi State. Auburn's pitching was solid last weekend except for the Saturday game won 12-1 by the Bulldogs. Throughout the year, Auburn's defense has been solid and the Tigers are ranked fifth in the country in fielding percentage at (.972) as they prepare to make the road trip to Tuscaloosa.

Chuck Jeroloman

Javon Moran

Auburn Diamond Notes: After the series in Tuscaloosa, Auburn will be back in action with a non-conference game vs. Troy State on Tuesday night at Paterson Field in Montgomery. That is a makeup game. The first pitch is scheduled for 6:30 p.m...The Tigers also have a rescheduled game vs. South Alabama that will be played May 14th at Plainsman Park...Seven Tigers had multi-hit games as Auburn had a season-high 22 hits in its last game vs. Mississippi State...All three games of the Alabama series are sellouts...Freshman shortstop Chuck Jeroloman has not committed an error in his last 73 chances. He is a big reason the Tigers lead the SEC in double plays with 44...As a team, Auburn has just four errors in its last 10 SEC games...Renfroe won his 100th game as a head coach in game three vs. Mississippi State. The 1982 Auburn graduate has a record of 64-36 in two seasons as AU's head man...Freshman outfielder Matt Grooms from Montgomery has not been cleared to play yet. He suffered a broken bone in his glove hand while diving for a ball in practice on March 27. He is expected to be ready to return to action in early May...Renfroe says that another Tiger who has returned from an injury, freshman Steven Register, will be the closer out of the bullpen vs. the Tide. He had one strong outing vs. Mississippi State in picking up a save last Friday and struggled in relief on Sunday when Auburn had a huge lead vs. the Bulldogs...Auburn has won 34 straight games when leading after the sixth inning...Freshman left fielder Sean Gamble snapped out of an 0-27 slump with five hits in his last two games...Another freshman, second baseman Tug Hulett, hit .455 last weekend with four runs scored, two RBI and three bases on balls...In the month of April, sophomore center fielder Javon Moran has the top batting average for AU at .373.

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