Auburn, Ala.--After the best start in nearly a decade and a Top 10 national ranking came crashing back to earth last week with a sweep at the hands of Georgia to open SEC play, the Auburn Tigers (18-6) get back in conference play this weekend when they take on the Florida Gators for a three-game series at Plainsman Park.
Despite a blazing fast start that saw them defeat nationally ranked Arizona State two of three earlier in the season, Auburn struggled on the road last weekend against a Bulldog team that wasn't yet a well-oiled machine to push its losing streak in league games to 13. Losing two games in the ninth inning after previously holding leads, Auburn will look to get back on the winning track and coach Tommy Slater says that his team's confidence has been really good despite the setback last weekend.
"The guys have been super," Slater says. "They were super last weekend too. They believe they are good. I believe they are good. We have played really well all season but we lost three games last weekend. We're not going to make any excuses for that. The bottom line is that these kids believe in themselves and I believe in them."
Playing one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country, the Tigers were prepared to face life in the best college baseball league in the country except for one minor detail. Despite playing several games away from Plainsman Park in a tournament in Mobile, Auburn had not faced a true road atmosphere this season until last week. With freshmen such as Robert Brooks, Ross Smith, Eric Skinner, Scott Shuman and several others counted on in key roles, Auburn learned things are a little different away from home. Slater says it was a learning experience for his still young club and he feels like they handled the disappointment well.
"When we went to Mobile we were actually the home team twice and got last at-bats, which was fortunate when we played Jacksonville," Slater says. "I think it's a real good experience for those kids. They've now been through it. They have played a lot of good people but all these kids have grown up around here thinking SEC, SEC, SEC. Now they've had their first taste of it. I believe our kids came out of there really disappointed that we didn't win at least two and feeling like that even though we lost three games over there, we were a more talented and better team. That seems strange to say when you lose three but I think that shows the confidence these kids have in their own ability and in this team's ability."
This weekend the Tigers will face a team, much like Georgia, that is searching for an identity. One of the more talented teams in the SEC this year, Florida has limped out to an 11-13 start after losing two of three at home last weekend to Mississippi State. Led by senior slugger Matt LaPorta (.389 average), the Gators have one of the best offensive teams in the conference. Fellow senior Brian Leclerc (.315) provides proven support in the lineup.
The top offensive weapon this season may be freshman Cole Figueroa. In a loss to Stetson Tuesday night, Figueroa had three hits and extended his hitting streak to nine games. For the season he leads the Gators with six home runs and 21 RBI. Senior Austin Pride (.383, 20 RBI) is currently on a six-game hitting streak and has seven RBI during that stretch.
Bryan Woodall has been very good for the Tigers this season.
On the mound the Gators have several quality arms led by junior Bryan Augenstine (2-3, 3.59 ERA). He will be on the mound Friday night against Auburn's Bryan Woodall (2-1, 2.08) in a classic showdown of power versus finesse. Saturday the Gators will send sophomore lefty Stephen Locke (3-2, 6.18) to the hill against Auburn's Paul Burnside (4-0, 3.82). Sunday it will be freshman Billy Bullock (2-3, 5.33) against Evan Crawford (3-1, 4.56) for the Tigers. Out of the bullpen junior Josh Edmondson (1-1, 2.00) is the top Gator reliever. Slater says this weekend is different for him because he has a knowledge of the Gator program and knows how talented the team is.
"I coached the seniors and helped to bring in the juniors," Slater says. "I know them real well. Obviously, I know the coaching staff real well. Matt is one of the best hitters in the country. Brian LeClerc is a really good senior that has been around the SEC for a long time. They've got some pitchers like Augenstine and Edmondson that have been around and are really talented. They are an interesting mix of some older kids like those guys that helped get them to a national championship game with some really good looking young players like Figeroa, (Matt) den Dekker and (Clayton) Pisani. They've got some good looking young players. Their incoming class was rated as the third-best in the country. Florida is a dangerous team. I have never seen a Florida team that didn't have good players. They are going to be good. Everybody is this league is good."
For the Tigers this weekend figures to be better from an offensive standpoint with the return of sophomore left fielder Mike Bianucci. Left in Auburn last weekend after coming down with the flu, Bianucci is back practicing and appears ready to get back in the lineup for the Tigers. Unfortunately several other players are battling to avoid getting the full-blown flu like Bianucci had last weekend. Others like Woodall are getting over a touch of the bug that affected them last weekend. Woodall had to leave Friday night's game after just 70 pitches because he was too weak from being sick. Slater says he's hopeful his team will be close to full strength by Friday night.
"He's feeling good and he's back to being healthy," Slater says. "He had some really good work in Wednesday's practice. He's getting his strength back and everything else. Mike can go at this point. We had a lot of other guys that were under the weather while we were there too. They are starting to feel better. We've got some others that are starting to get sick. The others are starting to get their strength back. It's good to have them back."
Game times for the weekend are set for 6 p.m. on Friday and 2 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday. Friday and Saturday's games can be seen on the Sunshine Network while both Saturday and Sunday will be shown on CSS.