With a record of 10-10, Auburn has struggled with consistency in every phases of the game. Playing with a bevy of newcomers and young players both in the field and on the pitching staff, Coach Tommy Slater's team has its work cut out this weekend facing a tough Gamecock team. Slater said that he's hopeful Auburn's schedule to open the season has his team ready for what they'll see this weekend.
"We've played such a good schedule so far with Florida State and Arizona State," Slater said. "The names don't jump out at you like those names, but Elon and Birmingham-Southern and all these places have such good coaches and they're so well-coached and prepared that being on the road really doesn't matter.
"I think the fact that we've played a very good schedule is important for our ball club. It means that the game won't speed up on our kids come Friday night because we've played good people already. The fact that we're at home, obviously you like to be at home more than on the road, is important but the fact that we've played such a good schedule so far means our kids have seen lots of good pitching and a lot of good teams."
First baseman Andy Bennett leads the Tigers with four home runs and 22 RBI this season.
Entering the weekend series with an overall record of 15-2 and ranked ninth in the nation, the Gamecocks have one of the league's youngest teams along with Auburn. Because of that Coach Ray Tanner said that he purposely left his team at home as much as possible to open the 2006 season in the hopes they could build some continuity heading into conference play.
"I am pleased with where we are right now," Tanner said. "We've played 14 games at home because we were at Clemson one day. I knew we were going to have a young team and I wanted to get them comfortable as quickly as I could. Part of the scheduling purpose was to be at home and hopefully they could build some confidence and have some success before we got into the SEC weekends.
"I have tried not to scream quite as much as I have been accustomed to in the past," he added. "I have tried to be a little bit more delicate with them. Although they are big, strapping young men I know they're not accustomed to what we're going through right now. The transition is a little bit different and I've tried to reach out and have a few more conversations and maybe teach a little bit more than you do with a veteran club.
"We've still got a couple of guys that need to grow a little bit. I thought the fall and the spring were a lot of fun because of the new players. I think I've got 21 new guys on the roster so it was different in a lot of ways."
While there are a lot of new faces, there are also a wealth of veterans for the Gamecocks in key positions as senior outfielder Michael Campbell returns to lead the offense. The most experienced player in NCAA baseball this season with 217 career games played, Campbell is seventh all-time in hits in Gamecock history and will be a player to watch this weekend. Last season he led the team in batting average (.315), games played (64), at-bats (251), runs (56), hits (79), doubles (16), triples (5), home runs (8), runs batted in (42), slugging percentage (.514), hit by pitch (10) and stolen bases (8).
Another veteran has also been solid for the Gamecocks in his career and is off to a hot start in 2006. Senior third baseman Shane Geisler leads the SEC in hitting entering the weekend and is coming off last weekend's series in which he hit .588 with three doubles and five RBI. Fellow veteran Robbie Grinestaff also enters on a roll after hitting .500 last weekend. Despite hitting just over .200 for the season, Grinestaff has five home runs and 19 RBI for the season.
On the mound the Gamecocks have one of the SEC's best scheduled for Friday night as junior Arik Hempby gets the call to face Auburn's Chris Dennis. With a record of 1-1 and an ERA of 3.78, the junior can be dominant at times and has proven that his first two seasons at South Carolina. Dennis will be making his first start in nearly three weeks after suffering tendonitis in his shoulder following surgery last year.
Saturday's pitching matchup features stellar freshman Mike Cisco from South Carolina against junior college transfer Brett Butts for the Tigers. This season Cisco is 1-0 with a 0.00 ERA while Butts is 2-3 with a 4.33 ERA. Sunday has freshman Evan Crawford on the hill for Auburn against junior Forrest Beverly for the Gamecocks. Crawford is 1-3 with a 5.09 ERA for the Tigers while Beverly has been very good with a 4-0 record and a 3.04 ERA.
Auburn got a scare Tuesday night when freshman closer Luke Greinke left the game against Appalachian State with a sore arm after throwing just 10 pitches against the Mountaineers. Pain-free the remainder of the week, Greinke is expected to be available this weekend if needed against the Gamecocks.
Game times for the weekend are 7 p.m. on Friday, 4 p.m. on Saturday following the football A-Day game and 1 p.m. on Sunday. Saturday's game will be shown live on Comcast Sports Southeast.