Pitching The Key For Tigers Against MSU

Auburn will look to keep pace in the SEC race with a big weekend against the Top 10 Mississippi State Bulldogs.

Auburn, Ala.--Trying to build on two road wins last week, the Auburn Tigers (16-20, 4-8) take on eighth-ranked Mississippi State (25-7, 6-5) in a key three-game series this weekend at Plainsman Park. It will be Auburn's fifth series this season against a ranked opponent and third against a team ranked in the Top 10.

Auburn has had success this season against upper echelon opponents with a 2-3 record against Top 10 teams. For that to continue the Tigers will need better starting pitching than they've had in recent series. While he would have been justified to make a move in the starting rotation, Coach Tommy Slater said that the regular rotation of Brett Butts, Evan Crawford and Chris Dennis will get the call once again this weekend.

That might come as a surprise to some with the struggles of Dennis lately. Bothered by pleurisy the last two outings after struggling with tendonitis several weeks before, the junior is just 1-3 this season with an ERA of 6.55. Still Slater said that Dennis has shown some signs that he's getting close to 100 percent and he's hoping it shows up against the Bulldogs.

"He's going to start again Sunday," Slater said of Dennis. "His line score wasn't good last Sunday, but he made better pitches and looked more like the guy that pitched when he was healthy. He's now going to have two full weeks of feeling good without the pleurisy and without the tendonitis in his shoulder. We're going to run him back out there. When he's been healthy for us this year, Florida State early in the year and South Carolina for five innings, he's gotten results….the bottom line is that when he's been healthy he's pitched okay for us. I'm going to give him another opportunity this weekend to go out in a starter's role on Sunday."

Auburn sophomore catcher Josh Donaldson is hitting just .240 in conference play, but leads the team with two home runs and nine RBI against league foes.

Auburn need solid pitching all weekend as the Tigers face the most experienced team in the league in the Bulldogs. Led by veteran coach Ron Polk and familiar names such as Thomas Berkery and Jeffrey Rea, Mississippi State has risen through the rankings all season long, but enters the series having lost six of its last 10 games. Included in that are series losses to Alabama and Georgia. Slater said despite their recent struggles the Bulldogs present a tough challege for the Tigers because of their experience.

"They have so many guys returning off last year's team and a lot of kids that have been together for a long time," Slater said. "It's just a relaxed way and a confidence that their kids play with. I think that goes hand in hand with being a veteran club. When you've got guys that are juniors, seniors and fifth-year seniors, they've been through this and done it so many times that they're confident. Their pitching numbers, they know they're going to be in just about every ballgame. The few losses they've had have been close ballgames. That's the kind of confidence you get when you know you're pitching staff is going to keep you right there."

Led by Berkery's .418 average, the Bulldogs come into the weekend as the league's most balanced offensive team. Hitting .310 as a club, Mississippi State has eight players with at least two home runs and 10 players with double-digit RBI totals. On the mound the Bulldogs will have sophomore Brooks Dunn (6-1, 3.06) for Friday night's game, junior Josh Johnson (4-2, 3.35) on Saturday and John Lalor (2-1, 3.82) on Sunday.

Auburn comes into the weekend banged-up as freshman shortstop Justin Bristow continues to be bothered with a sore left arm after being hit by a pitch Tuesday night. He had some swelling as late as Wednesday, but should be fine for the weekend. If he can't go then Phillip Stringer would get the call at short. Derek Sain is also bothered with a sore shoulder that could keep him out of action this weekend.

Game times are 7 p.m. on Friday, 4 p.m. on Saturday and 1 p.m. on Sunday. There is no television coverage for the weekend series.

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