Auburn, Ala.--After putting themselves in a deep hole to start the SEC season, the Auburn Tigers (24-12, 3-9) have won five of their last six games to get back in the race for the SEC Tournament in Hoover.
To continue that run of momentum they'll have to play well in what has become a shop of horrors for the Auburn Tigers over the years, Sarge Frye Field.
South Carolina's home ballpark hasn't been good to Auburn since the Gamecocks joined the league in 1992. The Tigers are just 5-13 in the six series at Sarge Fry Field during that stretch, making what was already a tough weekend even tougher. Facing a Gamecock team that is 26-7 overall, 7-5 in league play, Auburn will need to perform at the top of its game to have a chance at a series win. Coach Tommy Slater says that's no different than any other week and he's confident his team will be ready to play.
"I'm not worried about anything," Slater says. "They're good but I like my guys. The bottom line is to go out and throw strikes, catch the ball on defense, and play offense. They are going to do their best to keep us from playing offense. We're going to do our best to keep them from playing offense.
"As long as your pitchers are filling up the strike zone and giving your defense an opportunity to play, that's usually the formula for success. We'll have our work cut out for us. We know they're good but we're confident in ourselves."
For the second consecutive week, Auburn's starting rotation remains intact as Paul Burnside (5-1, 3.08 ERA) gets the call on Friday night with Taylor Thompson (4-0, 2.95) on Saturday and Justin Bristow (1-3, 5.84) on Sunday. Slater says although Bristow's outing last Sunday against LSU wasn't great, it also wasn't as bad as the it looked at a glance.
"Justin will start again on Sunday," Slater says. "Justin threw the ball fine at LSU. We just played lousy behind him. The botched score shows you that with five errors. He's going to get an opportunity on Sunday. I'm looking forward to seeing him pitch again."
Brett Butts has moved into the closer role for the Tigers and his 2.00 ERA is 37th nationally. Overall, Auburn's team ERA of 3.53 is good for number 27 in the country.
Auburn is hoping to have the services of sophomore left fielder Mike Bianucci this weekend at South Carolina. Out for over a week with a sprained AC in his left shoulder, Bianucci returned to practice this week and Slater says he'll work out once more before the series starts to see if he's ready.
"He'll go and hopefully he'll play," Slater says. "He swung the bat (Wednesday) for the first time. He tried a couple of times in Baton Rouge to hit in the cages and it just wasn't working for him. He swung yesterday and felt way better. It was the best he's felt since he suffered the injury against South Alabama. We are encouraged and we're going to put him on the bus. If he feels good he'll be in the lineup."
Without Bianucci Auburn has come on strong by winning three of four games, including two of three in Baton Rouge last weekend. Much of the reason for Auburn's success is due to the success of freshman Joseph Sanders, Dustin Spruill, Robert Brooks and Ross Smith at the plate. With Bianucci out and Josh Donaldson struggling, the four freshmen combined for two home runs and 22 RBI in the four-game stretch. For the season they are hitting .310 with 90 RBI. Throw in a freshman ERA of 2.96 on the mound from Thompson, Austin Hubbard and Scott Shuman and you have one of the better freshman classes in Auburn history. Slater says he hasn't been surprised by their play this season though because they have the talent to get the job done.
"We've got good young players," Slater says. "That's the bottom line. With the exception of whoever is hitting ninth, you've got to deal with something at just about every spot in the lineup. Joseph with his emergence, Brooks continues to play really well, and Spruill, the thing I like most about these guys is there is no fear. They don't care. All of these guys have played a lot of baseball and not only here in the state but on different teams against a lot of these kids. They're not afraid.
"When I look at Joseph Sanders I think of Jamie Kersh. When I look at Dustin Spruill I think of Casey Dunn. When I look at Robert Brooks I don't know who to think of because he's way-athletic. He's really gifted.
"Ross isn't as fast as a Mailon Kent, but offensively they are similar players at the same age with the bat. I just see a group of kids that aren't afraid and the reason they aren't afraid and the reason they have no fear is because they are good and they believe in themselves."
The only time Auburn has won a series at South Carolina was in 1997, a team that featured both Kersh and Dunn as prominent members. Slater is hoping to come home with similar results and keep his Tigers in the hunt at the halfway point of the SEC schedule. Game times for the weekend are 6 p.m. on Friday, 11 a.m. on Saturday and 12:30 on Sunday. All times are central.