Auburn, Ala.--It's an uphill battle but it's not one that the Auburn Tigers are ready to give up on just yet. Currently 28-19 overall and 7-14 in SEC play, two and a half games behind Kentucky for eighth place in the conference, Auburn travels to Starkville this weekend to face the Mississippi State Bulldogs (28-12, 10-9) in a huge series for both teams. Likely needing at least six wins to have a chance at postseason play with three series remaining, Auburn has its work cut out but Coach Tommy Slater says his team is still focused on the task at hand.
"We're not ready to right off anything right now," Slater says. "We kind of feel like the future is this weekend. We've had points in this season where we've played extremely well. We've had points where we haven't. We're searching for consistency and obviously that's something we all want. I like our players and I like the kids we have here. It's just a matter of being consistent on a day-to-day basis. I think we've shown on any given day we can beat anybody. We've also shown on certain days we don't play as well. It all starts on the mound. Pitching is the key to everything."
Just like it has been the entire SEC season, Auburn's weekend rotation has question marks as sophomore Paul Burnside is day-to-day with a strained bicep. Slater says he is better and will throw a short bullpen outing on Thursday afternoon but his status for the weekend is unknown. Because of that sophomore Evan Crawford (4-4, 6.11 ERA) will get the ball on Friday night with true freshman Taylor Thompson (4-1, 4.99) the Saturday starter. If Burnside is unable to go on Sunday then either sophomore Bryan Woodall (2-2, 4.91) or freshman Austin Hubbard (1-0, 5.06) will start game three.
"He has thrown and is better," Slater says of Burnside. "He feels like he gets better every single day. The plan is for him to get on the bus, so that is encouraging. We're hopeful that by Sunday he will be good to go."
Burnside is 3-1 with a 2.57 ERA in six SEC starts this year.
Unfortunately for Auburn, Burnside isn't the only key Tiger battling injury problems. Standout junior catcher Josh Donaldson and sophomore left fielder Mike Bianucci were both banged up against Arkansas last weekend, forcing the Tigers to play much of the last two games without them. Slater says Donaldson's thumb looks ready to go but Bianucci is still questionable with a strained hamstring.
"It's better," Slater says. "He has felt a lot better with each passing day. I anticipate him hitting third and catching tomorrow night."
Bianucci's status is still up in the air after he strained a hamstring running to first base late in Sunday's loss to the Razorbacks. Auburn's leading home run hitter with 13 on the season, Bianucci hasn't been able to practice to this point but Slater says he's hoping to get him back sometime over the weekend. Without him Luke Greinke becomes an even bigger part of the gameplan says Slater.
"Greinke will be in left field tomorrow night," Slater says. "Mike, in his last at-bat on Sunday, tweaked his hamstring. If he's able to play it will be as the DH."
With Greinke expected to see at least some action in left field that means that freshman Joseph Sanders will move from third base to first base, where he has played some this season. Sophomore Justin Bristow will get the call at third base after a solid weekend there against Arkansas when he had four hits in two games.
"Justin has played very well the last few games and has earned the right to play some more," Slater says. "For tomorrow night's lineup I'll have Sanders at first base and Bristow at third."
Auburn's juggled lineup on the mound and in the field will have to produce against a Mississippi State club that leads the SEC in hitting with a .331 team average and also has 35 home runs in 40 games. Leading the charge is Brandon Turner at .421 with a home run and 39 RBI. The top power man is catcher Edward Easley. Hitting .379, Easley has a team-high 10 home runs and 49 RBI and has struck out just 17 times in 161 at-bats this season.
On the mound the Bulldogs will send Chad Crosswhite (5-2, 4.70) to the mound on Friday, Justin Pigott (3-4, 5.43) on Saturday and Josh Johnson (2-2, 5.56) on Sunday. Game times for the weekend are scheduled for 6:30 on Friday night, 6 p.m. on Saturday and 1:30 p.m. on Sunday. Saturday's game can be seen live on CSS.