Tigers Visiting the Desert to Face Sun Devils

Auburn's first-ever baseball road trip to a Pac-10 school is a three-game series vs. national power Arizona State.

Tempe, Ariz.--Auburn faces what should be its toughest challenge so far this baseball season as the Tigers face perennial power Arizona State in a three-game series Friday through Sunday.

Currently 11-5, the Sun Devils have improved since the beginning of the season and Auburn coach Tommy Slater says he's anxious to see how his young team performs away from Plainsman Park for the first time this year.

"We're excited and looking forward to the challenge of playing one of the perennial powers in college baseball year in and year out," Slater says. "I'm very excited for the opportunity to go out and play a real quality Arizona State team. I think it's going to be good for our ball club."

Coach Tommmy Slater's Tigers will be playing Arizona State for the first time in AU baseball history.

At home for the first 13 games of the season, Auburn, 8-5, has been up and down because of newcomers up and down the lineup and in the pitching rotation. Because of that Slater says it's a good time for his team to go on the road and see what they're made of before SEC play begins in two weeks.

"I think it's good," Slater says. "We've been at home all month. I think any time you can go on the road and play a quality opponent it's good for your club. It's just the way the schedule fell this year that we're not going on the road until the first weekend of March.

"Typically I like to go out a little early, but that's the way the schedule worked out this year. I'm really excited to have the opportunity to play such a good club because it's going to be good for us. We'll get to play in a hostile environment. I hope there are some people yelling and screaming and spitting at us to get us ready for the SEC."

One change this weekend involves the pitching staff as veteran Chris Dennis isn't in the starting rotation because of tendonitis. Coming back from arm surgery last season, Dennis has struggled in his last two outings and the coaching staff is hoping a weekend off will help him in his comeback effort.

With the junior out the Tigers will turn to freshman Bryan Woodall on Friday for the opener. Currently 0-0 with a 3.60 ERA, Woodall has been outstanding so far this season, but will have his work cut out for him on Friday. The rest of the weekend pitching rotation remains intact as Brett Butts takes the mound on Saturday while freshman Evan Crawford will again be Auburn's Sunday starter.

Tyler Johnstone has reached safely in the last 23 games for the Tigers.

At the plate Auburn has been solid the last two outings, scoring a combined 21 runs in wins over Elon and Davidson. Much of the reason for that success has been production at the top of the order. Things start with leadoff man Tyler Johnstone, but the move of sophomore Russell Dixon into the two-hole has paid off handsomely for the Tigers. Hitting the ball hard all season long, Dixon is 5-9 since moving up in the order and he notes that's where he feels most comfortable.

"I like being able to set the table for guys like (Josh) Donaldson," Dixon says. "We've got some great guys behind me in Don and (Andy) Bennett and (Mike) Bianucci. I like being able to get on base for those guys. Me and Johnstone can get on base and get in scoring position to allow those guys to drive us in."

Dixon has also shown the ability to hit the long ball this season with three home runs. That's quite a change from last year when he only had one home run in 142 at-bats. He says that he feels more comfortable at the plate every day and it's showing in his performance.

"Last year, being a freshman, it was a lot of different things to have to deal with the crowds and bigger environments," Dixon says. "It's just a learning process that everybody goes through. You see Donaldson having more success now and some of our older guys. Our younger guys are learning that having the right approach and playing the game right definitely helps."

This weekend Dixon and Auburn's offense will have a chance to put up some numbers against a young Sun Devil pitching staff that has given up a lot of runs so far this season. He says that he's just looking forward to the opportunity of playing one of the nation's best teams on the road and building on the experience for the rest of the year.

"It's going to be a blast," Dixon predicts. "Arizona State is a College World Series contender every year. I think it's going to be a lot of fun.

"It's a real offensive park from what I hear. I think we're a real offensive team. It's going to be great for our young guys to get out there and get in that kind of environment. It's a lot like a Florida State and will give us a real feel for what it might be like in the SEC and postseason."

Game times at 3,879-seat Packard Stadium are 8 p.m. CST on Friday, 2 p.m. CST on Saturday and 1 p.m. CST on Sunday.

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