Battle Of The Cats Set For Plainsman Park

Auburn is looking to get back on the winning track against Kentucky this weekend at Plainsman Park.

Auburn, Ala.--Hoping to get out of the basement in the SEC Western Division, Auburn returns home this weekend to face the surprising 20th-ranked Kentucky Wildcats in a three-game series at Plainsman Park. At just 12-15 overall and 1-5 in conference play, the Tigers are looking to get back on the winning track with changes in both the starting rotation and the regular lineup.

The most prominent changes will be in the field as Tuesday night's experience in Troy seemed to have been what Coach Tommy Slater was looking. Designated hitter Ryan Stanley's two-hit performance as well as a solid outing by both Luke Greinke and Josh Stapleton in center field give Slater some options in the lineup and he said he liked what he saw despite the loss to the Trojans.

"Our kids are continuing to work hard," Slater said. "I thought despite the loss we made some progress offensively and saw some good things out of our hitters. The kids are working hard and continuing to get after it."

Coming off a game in which the Tigers scored seven runs on 10 hits, Auburn will now try to carry that feeling back into conference action. Unfortunately to this point the Tigers have really struggled in SEC action at the plate, hitting just .175 as a team with 72 strikeouts and only 35 hits and 25 walks in six games. Slater said that's something the team is working on and he's seeing slow improvement in that area.

"It's terrible," Slater said of Auburn's strikeout to walk ratio. "We spent all day Monday working on two-strike hitting for about two hours. Last night (Tuesday) we were a lot better. On Sunday afternoon at Vanderbilt we were better. Friday night Price (David Price) was very good. There are times when you have to tip your cap to a guy throwing 92-95 (MPH) from the left side who is six-foot-six. Saturday was the day I was very disappointed in. I thought Saturday was the day we had some very poor approaches at the plate.

"We addressed that with the team after the game and in pre-game the next day. On Sunday we were better. We had better approaches at the plate on Sunday and we had better approaches last night (against Troy). It's something we're working on. It's not good and it's something that we've got to work to continue to get better at."

Mike Bianucci's .208 batting average is Auburn's best in SEC play from an every day player.

On the mound the Tigers will likely turn to sophomore Brett Butts for the Friday night start with freshman Evan Crawford moving to Saturday from his normal Sunday slot. That would give junior Chris Dennis one extra day to recover from a bout of pleurisy that has bothered him for almost two weeks. Slater said that Dennis is getting better, but they're still not 100 percent certain he'll be ready to go this weekend for the long haul.

"Chris is still battling through pleurisy," Slater said. "He has not felt very good since he threw on Saturday. His arm is fine. His arm feels great, better than it has felt all year. The problem is that he's got some pain in his side. He started more medicine on Monday. He had an x-ray on Monday and it didn't show anything. We're hopeful the medicine can get it cleared up…obviously how he feels and where he's at will determine when he will pitch be it Saturday or Sunday."

Auburn's pitching will need to be solid this weekend facing a talented Kentucky team that comes in on a roll after winning two of three from Tennessee last weekend. Currently 21-5 overall and 4-2 in conference play following a 15-4 victory over Morehead State Wednesday night, the Wildcats come into the weekend with perhaps the SEC's best offense. Hitting .312 as a team with 38 home runs and 74 doubles, Kentucky is one of the top scoring teams in the league and that could spell trouble for the Tigers.

Spreading the wealth is the name of the game for the Wildcats as six players have at least four home runs led by the powerful Ryan Strieby. Hitting .385, Strieby has seven home runs and 38 RBI this season and also leads the team with 14 doubles. Another power source is John Shelby, who is hitting just .247 this season but has six home runs and 27 runs batted in.

On the mound the Wildcats have been fantastic with a team ERA of just 2.94 this season. A weekend rotation hasn't been set, but it's a safe bet to assume that Greg Dombrowski, Craig Snipp and Aaron Tennyson will all get the call to start this weekend based on their performances to this point. Currently 5-0 with a miniscule 1.21 ERA, Dombrowski has been dominant this season with 27 strikeouts and just two walks to his credit in 44 2/3 innings of work. Snipp has been almost as good, 4-0 with a 1.52 ERA in 44 1/3 innings. Tennyson rounds out the rotation with a 4-1 record and an earned run average of 3.98.

"John Cohen, Kentucky's head coach, has done a really good job of rebuilding that program," Slater said. "He's in year three now. They took their lumps their first two years, but he committed last year. He played a lot of freshmen and a lot of sophomores and now they are sophomores and juniors. I thought their position players a year ago were very good. I thought they were every bit as good, from a talent standpoint, as anyone else in the league. Where I thought they were a little short last year was on the mound…it looks like he's gotten that. They've got some kids right now that have some good numbers."

Game times for the weekend are 7 p.m. on Friday, 4 p.m. on Saturday and 1 p.m. on Sunday.

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