Tigers Hope To Keep That Winning Feeling

Auburn, Ala.--Riding a wave of momentum following a weekend series win at Florida, the Auburn Tigers return home for the final non-conference game of the regular season Tuesday when they face Mercer at Plainsman Park.

Entering the game with an overall record of 20-23, Auburn has played much better recently and has won three of its last four series in the Southeastern Conference to move to 8-10 in league play.

Coach Tommy Slater said that last weekend's play in Gainesville was something his team really needed as they try to finish strong and make a run at the SEC Tournament in Hoover.

"I thought it was important just for us to keep playing well," Slater said. "That is three out of the last four weekends that we've been able to win a SEC series. To be able to go on the road and get our first road series win, the kids feel good because they've been working hard all year.

"Now they are seeing some fruits for their labor. They can see the growth their making and they understand that a month ago we probably couldn't have done what we did this last weekend."

Much of the reason for Auburn's recent success is because of the improvement on the mound. With a healthy Chris Dennis and Luke Greinke once again along with improvements out of relievers such as Paul Burnside and Johnny Thompson, the Tigers have been much better since being swept in a series at Vanderbilt in early April.

Freshmen Greinke, Burnside and Saturday starter Evan Crawford have a combined ERA of just 2.16 in 58 1/3 innings this season with 36 strikeouts. Slater said the pitching staff as a whole has gotten better and contributed to the recent success.

"We're just seeing guys get better," Slater said. "It may be something as simple as Johnny Thompson's development of a change-up. He was able to get a couple of left-handed hitters out on Sunday. Paul Burnside just continues to pitch well for us in clutch situations. Chris Dennis has put back-to-back good starts together that were solid. Luke Greinke's value of being able to pitch twice for us on a weekend for the first time in a long time. The offensive approach really is continuing to get better each and every weekend since we left Vanderbilt."

Freshman shortstop Justin Bristow could see action on the mound Tuesday.

Tuesday night the Tigers will face a Mercer team that comes into the game at 28-18 overall. With the lack of depth in the pitching staff because of injuries the Tigers have struggled in mid-week games this season and the injury bug again has bitten the Tigers with sophomore Clarence Nicely out with a strained muscle in his forearm. Slater said that the injury will force him to use some different looks on the mound with one of them possibly being freshman shortstop Justin Bristow. He was an outstanding high school pitcher before arm problems caused him to take the entire summer and fall away from throwing a baseball so he could be ready for the 2006 season.

"It will be Bryan Woodall to start and then it will be a staff game," Slater said. "A lot of bullpen guys will throw. We'll have to staff it up. Clarence's status is kind of day to day. We didn't even take him to Gainesville with us this weekend and I'm anxious to see how he's progressing.

"He was recruited and signed as a two-way player," Slater added of Bristow. "With the shape that his arm was in when he got here he didn't pick up a baseball all fall. Playing shortstop every day he has just recently felt good enough that he came to Coach (Matt) Myers and said he wanted to throw some. He's now thrown about four bullpen sessions. It's a possibility that (Tuesday) could be one of those days. I just want to see how he feels coming off the weekend. He actually strained something in his back on Sunday. That's just the grind of a long season, especially for a freshman. There are bumps and bruises and all that.

"We've been cautious with him and his arm. He was shut down for two months. Everyone knows when we signed him he was a two-way guy and if he can start helping us in that area who knows. His stuff is certainly good enough."

The first pitch is scheduled for 7 p.m. for Tuesday's game. This weekend the Tigers travel to Tuscaloosa to face rival Alabama in a three-game series.


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