After beginning the conference slate 0-8, Auburn has won six of 10 league games to move within striking distance of a berth in the SEC Tournament.
To reach their goal the Tigers need to win seven of their last 12 conference games after taking two of three from Alabama last weekend. While it's not impossible, the schedule isn't favorable as Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Kentucky are the final three series for the Tigers. That makes this weekend's series against the Razorbacks so important, but it doesn't make it any easier.
Arkansas comes into the weekend with an SEC-best 13-5 conference record and 33-11 overall after defeating nationally-ranked Wichita State Wednesday night. Led by a pitching staff with a team ERA of just 3.95 on the season and four complete games, the Razorbacks present perhaps the toughest challenge of the year for the Tigers on the mound. Coach Tommy Slater says while Arkansas' offense gets a lot of attention, it's on the mound where the Razorbacks shine.
"It starts with pitching for them," Slater says. "Nick Schmidt (8-1, 2.56 ERA)--I spent the summer with Nick because he was our number two starter on Team USA. (David) Price was number one and he was number two. He's outstanding. They follow him up with Duke Welker (5-2, 2.83), whose numbers are just as good as Schmidt's. They follow him with Jess Todd (5-2, 3.99). They've got three big-time arms that they run at you. The bullpen is solid. It starts on the mound with them. They lead the league in pitching. They are really good on the mound."
On offense the Hogs score runs in bunches with 371 on the year. Hitting .296 as a team with opponents hitting .249, Arkansas has the ability to outscore opponents if the need arises. Leading the charge at the plate is Logan Forsythe with a .342 average, six home runs and 38 RBI.
Veteran Danny Hamblin is a power threat for the Hogs.
The power comes in waves as six Razorbacks have at least five home runs with veteran Danny Hamblin leading the pack with 14 and 44 RBI. Casey Coon's 51 RBI lead the team and he adds a .299 batting average and six home runs.
"Offensively, they've got some kids like Hamblin, who is a fourth-year senior and has been around and is swinging a really hot bat right now," Slater says. "They're good. This is a veteran club. They have been pointing to this year. Dave has been saying this was their year...they've got a good veteran club. They are leading the league. Everybody knows they are good."
Auburn will counter with yet another change in the starting rotation as top pitcher Paul Burnside is listed as day-to-day after straining the bicep in his pitching arm. Without him the Tigers will go with sophomore Evan Crawford (4-3, 5.28) in game one with freshman Taylor Thompson (4-1, 4.34) on Saturday. Sunday is listed as TBA.
Offensively, Auburn is looking to get continued great play out of sophomore Luke Greinke. Riding a 19-game hitting streak and hitting .358 overall and .352 in SEC play, Greinke will try to lead the Tigers to another home series win and back closer to eighth place in the league standings. Slater says Greinke has been huge for his team this season because of his versatility.
"Luke Greinke, you talk about versatility as a baseball player, it's amazing all the things he can do," Slater says. "I have been watching him play for a long time. When I was an assistant coach at Florida I got to see Luke when he was just a junior in high school. We're so lucky to have him here. He can play first base, left field, center field, right field. If I needed him to play third base or second base he could do that because he's a high school shortstop. He's also a very good pitcher. Luke is a joy. He just shows up and really approaches the game the right way."
Game times for the weekend series at scheduled for 6 p.m. on Friday, 2 p.m. on Saturday and 1:30 on Sunday afternoon.