Shorthanded Tigers Face Rising Tide

Auburn will face Alabama in a big three game series this weekend at Sewell-Thomas Stadium in Tuscaloosa.

Auburn, Ala.--Auburn will try for its fourth series win in five weeks as the Tigers travel to Tuscaloosa to face the sixth-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide in a huge SEC Western Division showdown. Auburn enters at 21-23 overall and 8-10 in league play while Alabama is 32-12, 13-5 in SEC action.

The Tigers are riding high coming into the series with a 9-6 record in their last 15 games and series wins over Kentucky, Mississippi State and Florida during that stretch. In two of those series Auburn got very important Friday night victories, something that will be tough this weekend against Alabama ace Wade LeBlanc.

The most dominating pitcher in the SEC this season, LeBlanc is 7-0 in 2006 with an ERA of just 2.70 in 11 starts this season. Consistent on the mound, the junior has thrown 83 1/3 innings this season and has allowed just 60 hits. Opponents are hitting just .201 against LeBlanc this season and Auburn's Tommy Slater said that he presents a tough challenge in the opening game for the Tigers.

"Wade is really good," Slater said. "He's been really good since he came in the league as a freshman. His freshman year I was an assistant at the University of Florida. We had a really good team that year, we could really hit. On Friday night Wade really put it to us and that when he was a true freshman.

"Wade reminds me a lot of Hayden Gliemmo that pitched here, but with better stuff. He has a good change-up, good breaking ball, a fastball to both sides of the plate. He's upper 80s with the fastball. He can just pitch and has been able to pitch since day one. He's a very impressive pitcher and has been for three years."

LeBlanc isn't the only solid starter for the Crimson Tide as both Saturday and Sunday starters Baernard Robert and Tommy Hunter each have six wins this season with ERA's under four. That makes it a tough weekend on any team, but take away a team's top hitter and it makes it especially hard.

With Mike Bianucci out catcher Josh Donaldson will have to continue to step up his game. After a 4-4 night against Mercer Donaldson has raised his average to .294. Last season he had just one hit in 11 at-bats against Alabama.

That is the case this weekend as freshman Mike Bianucci will not make the trip to Alabama for the series after straining his groin Tuesday night in a win over Mercer. Hitting .396 with seven home runs this season, the third baseman's absence leaves a huge hole in the Auburn lineup, one that Slater said he's still not sure how to fill.

"I haven't decided that yet," Slater said. "To be honest with you I think we're a better team when (Josh) Donaldson is catching so I have a really hard time taking him out from behind the plate. He's our best catcher and we're better when he's back there. I really don't want to take him out from behind the plate unless I have to.

"Phillip Stringer has made some starts at third base this year so most likely he'll be starting Friday night against the left-hander. We'll work with Josh Stapleton as well at third."

This weekend Auburn's pitching rotation will remain the same as sophomore Brett Butts gets the call on Friday night with freshman Evan Crawford on Saturday and junior Chris Dennis on Sunday. All three had a solid weekend at Florida in Auburn's series win with Dennis coming on strong after a tough start to his junior year. He had won two consecutive starts on Sunday and has allowed just two earned runs on nine hits while striking out eight in 10 1/3 innings.

Game times for the weekend are 6:30 on Friday night, 6 p.m. on Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday. Friday's game can be seen on the Alabama Cable Network while both Saturday and Sunday will be shown on CSS.

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