Auburn, Ala.--A frustrating season comes to an end this weekend for the Auburn Tigers (29-24, 8-19 SEC) as they travel to Lexington, Ken. to face the Kentucky Wildcats (33-17-1) in the final regular season series for both teams. Eliminated from the SEC Tournament last weekend against Vanderbilt, Auburn will be playing simply for pride as they look to finish strong and build momentum and confidence for next season.
It won't be an easy thing to do though as the Tigers will once again be without ace pitcher Paul Burnside. Out for the last month with a strained bicep, the sophomore could only watch as his team lost seven of eight conference games since his injury before winning on Sunday against the top-ranked Commodores. Coach Tommy Slater says that Burnside's injury has been a tough one for the Tigers to overcome this season but it hasn't kept his team from playing hard.
"I thought we played fairly well last weekend," Slater says. "We had the opportunity to win two out of three but we didn't, we won one. I was very happy for that. You talk about streaks of losing and things like that but when your number one hasn't pitched for four weeks, those are the guys that usually stop those kinds of things. Arkansas you win a game without your number one but with him maybe you win two. You go to Mississippi State and lose two really close games. Maybe if your number one is pitching you get one of those on the road. Then this past weekend our number one doesn't pitch and we still had an opportunity in two out of three games.
"This will be our fourth weekend without our number one guy but I don't think there has been any lack of effort or lack of trying. I don't feel like that has been an issue. The kids are trying their best. They are competing and working hard. Obviously if you take a number one off anybody's staff they go from being real good to real average in a heartbeat, not that we were at the real good end of it."
Without Burnside, the Tigers will send Evan Crawford (4-6, 5.95 ERA), Taylor Thompson (4-2, 5.77) and likely Bryan Woodall (2-2, 4.59) to the mound against Kentucky starters Chris Rusin (5-3, 4.26), Andrew Albers (6-4, 4.84) and Greg Dombrowski (5-2, 5.21) looking to bring some joy to an otherwise lifeless SEC season. Slater says that the blister on Woodall's finger that bothered him on Sunday shouldn't be an issue this week. That's big because Woodall has pitched well in recent weeks and gives the Tigers a solid Sunday starter.
"Bryan really threw the ball well early," Slater says. "He scuffled some in the middle but has thrown the ball well the last couple of weekends. I have been pleased with how he has thrown it. I'm assuming his finger is going to be okay. I wouldn't include him on the injury list."
In addition to Burnside, sophomore Justin Bristow won't make the trip to Kentucky after straining his shoulder. Slater says the muscle injury was just too sore for Bristow to help out the team this weekend.
This weekend will be the last in an Auburn uniform for a large group of seniors and possibly several talented underclassmen. There is little doubt that junior Josh Donaldson will return because of his status as one of the top juniors in the country. Slater says he expects Donaldson to be a Top 50 pick in the Amateur Draft next month. There is also a chance that both Mike Bianucci and Brett Butts will also be gone after this season.
Josh Donaldson is likely suiting up for Auburn for the last time this weekend at Kentucky.
With three of his best players gone, Slater says it will be tough to replace them but he feels like the talent level is on the rise and will continue this year. With 67 percent of this season's at-bats coming from freshmen or sophomores, Auburn has a strong nucleus to build on but still it comes down to one thing. One thing and one thing only is expected and Slater says that's the way it should be.
"I've got to find a better way of getting us winning games in the SEC," Slater says. "That's my job. I'm pleased with how we've recruited. We do have good players here and we've got more coming. It's not about a lack of talent. Now they're not young anymore. It's well documented how many freshmen have played but they've got a full year under their belts now. I'm pleased that we will return a lot of players and a lot of pitching that got a lot of playing time. As good as the players are that are coming in, it will be a difficult task for them to break through and find playing time. I think what we will finally have next year is the combination of talent and experience."
Game times for the series against Kentucky are scheduled for 6 p.m. on Friday, 5 30 p.m. on Saturday and noon on Sunday. All times are central. Both Friday's and Sunday's games can be seen on Fox Sports Net on a regional basis. Slater says the Tigers have one goal this weekend and that is to come away with another SEC road series victory. No matter the outcome though, Slater says he feels like the program is headed in the right direction in his third year at the helm.
"Have we won more games this year," Slater asks? "Yes, we have. We have won more games. Our numbers in every category are better but we haven't won enough in the SEC. That's the bottom line. We've got to win more in the SEC. We've taken a step forward in our talent level. We've got more talent here than we did a year ago but the bottom line is we've got to win in the SEC. It's well documented, that's what we need to do. Do I think that's going to occur? I do. I have seen an improvement in just about every area of our team this year. I think that will continue. The thing that has to happen now is that improvement has to turn into winning in the league. I think we're closer to that today than we necessarily were two years ago."