Normally it involves a big power hitter or an overpowering pitcher, but in this weekend's Auburn-Alabama showdown at Plainsman Park the key matchup could involve two of the smallest players on the field.
Center fielders Bruce Edwards from Auburn (25-15, 4-11) and Emeel Salem have both been key to the success of their respective teams this season and this weekend the winner may be the team that handles the opposite speedster the best. Coach Tommy Slater says that Auburn's ability to keep Salem in check will be important for his team this weekend just like Alabama's ability to slow down Edwards.
"He is their Edwards," Slater says of Salem. "When he's on, things happen for their offense just like when Edwards is on things happen for our offense. The only difference between Salem and Bruce is that Salem has a little pop in his bat. He can run a ball out of the park. Bruce isn't going to do that. They are both proto-typical leadoff guys. They have good on-base percentages, plenty of stolen bases, kind of the go-guys for each offense.
"You go into a lot of series focusing on not letting the three-hole (beat you) or the four-hole," he adds. "We've got to make sure we don't let Salem beat us because he's the catalyst of their offense."
Hitting a team-high .362 this season with five home runs, 25 RBI, 42 runs scored and 21 stolen bases, Salem is having another outstanding season for the Crimson Tide (22-16, 7-8) in the leadoff spot. While those are great, Edwards isn't far behind in the numbers race.
Salem has been good in his career against Auburn pitching.
Currently at .351 with 40 runs scored, an on-base-percentage of .488 and 24 stolen bases, Edwards has been solid this season for the Tigers. He's been even better lately with 14 hits in his last 29 at-bats for the Tigers. Slater says Edwards' play has been a reason why the Tigers played so well over a two-week stretch.
"He's playing really well," Slater says. "I think he's playing with confidence. He feels good at the plate. He pressures teams so much with his ability to run. He has a lot of gaps that he can hit through because first and third are always up taking away the bunt. They are way in there and that opens up the whole field for him. It's his game and he's been playing it well."
On the mound, Auburn's pitching rotation will remain the game as sophomore Paul Burnside (6-1, 2.87) gets the call on Friday with freshman Taylor Thompson (4-1, 4.24) on Saturday and sophomore Justin Bristow (1-4, 6.91) on Sunday.
Justin Bristow needs a much better outing than his last two Sunday starts if the Tigers hope to have a chance to win.
Alabama will counter with talented Myers Quigley (4-2, 2.89) on Friday with Bernard Robert (4-4, 3.57) on Saturday and Austin Hyatt (4-1, 1.91) on Sunday. Slater says he's looking for an improved weekend of pitching from his club that he hopes will translate into better play all the way around.
"It's a concern," Slater says. "We didn't pitch well (Wednesday night against Samford) and we weren't facing a team that's very offensive. Samford was hitting .236 coming into that game. We also walked seven guys. The concern is our walk to strikeout ratio as a pitching staff. We're not striking a lot of guys out and we're walking more than we were earlier in the year.
"That is a concern and we need to be better, but it's not just the pitching, it's every phase. You try to get better in every thing you do and we're not going to put it on the pitchers. It's a team thing."
Game times for the weekend are scheduled for 6 p.m. on Friday, 3 p.m. on Saturday and 1:30 Sunday afternoon. Friday and Sunday, the games can be seen on Comcast Sports South while Saturday's game will be part of SEC TV on Fox Sports Net.