Slater Hopes Young Guns Can Shoot Down Vols

Auburn will have three freshmen in the rotation this weekend as the Tigers take on Tennessee at Plainsman Park.

Auburn, Ala.--With five wins in their last six games, including two of three from second-ranked Kentucky last weekend, the Auburn Tigers have rebounded from a sweep to Florida to open the season to find themselves in the mix in a jumbled SEC West race.

That's big for a program looking to put itself back on the map in college baseball after several consecutive years of frustration. Coach Tommy Slater said despite the relative youth of his team, he sees them becoming more confident with every passing day.

"It's important that we won those games because our kids played the right way," Slater says. "They played the way we wanted to play and had success. I think our kids have confidence in themselves.

"I think they also know we're right there smack dab in the middle of it. Our team believes in itself and they have confidence in themselves. After two weekends we're right smack dab in the middle of it and they know they're playing for something."

The hunt for Hoover and the SEC Tournament continues this weekend as the Tigers take on the Tennessee Vols in a three-game series at Plainsman Park. Entering the weekend, Auburn (16-9, 2-4) trails Ole Miss by one game in the West while Tennessee (15-7, 4-2) is a game out of first in the East.

Already playing a large group of freshmen in the everyday lineup including first baseman Hunter Morris, second baseman Justin Hargett, left fielder Brian Fletcher, center fielder Trent Mummey and designated hitter Kevin Patterson, Slater and the Tigers will be about as young as you can possibly get on the mound this weekend with three freshmen in the starting rotation.

Friday night redshirt freshman Grant Dayton (2-1, 2.67 ERA) takes on sophomore Steve Crnkovich (4-1, 3.74) from Tennessee in the opener. On Saturday true freshman Cory Luckie (3-2, 2.55) gets the call against redshirt freshman Bryan Morgado (3-2, 1.82) for the Vols. The change comes on Sunday as true freshman Bradley Hendrix (1-0, 3.96) gets his first SEC start against sophomore Nick Hernandez (0-1, 4.85) for Tennessee.

Slater says while they are freshmen, he's confident they can all get the job done.

"Nerve-wracking is when you have players on the field that aren't very good," Slater says. "We believe in our players. We have good kids. They work hard and they're talented. Age never bothers me. Our young pitchers throw strikes. I don't get nerve-wracked about that. I get nerve-wracked when guys don't throw strikes."

At the plate a red-hot Mike Bianucci leads the way, hitting .372 with four home runs and 20 RBI. He has 13 doubles and has scored a team-high 24 runs this season. Behind him in the order is Morris. The freshman from Huntsville has been outstanding, hitting .357 with four homers and 22 RBI. Hargett, Joseph Sanders, Patterson and Fletcher are all above .300 for a team that has raised its average to .311 for the season, up 11 points in the last six games.

Perhaps the biggest reason for that is the play of shortstop Matt Hall. The junior transfer from Arizona State is hitting .429 (15-35) over his last nine games with six doubles, a triple, a home run, and seven runs scored. He has raised his batting average from .214 before the stretch to a current mark of .297. For the year he has eight doubles and 12 RBI.

"Matt is a good hitter," Slater says. "I think it's just a matter of time before he started swinging the bat well here. Obviously last year he was over a .300 hitter at Arizona State. He tore us apart last year when he came in here. The only adjustment I've really seen is that he's standing a little taller at the plate. That's helping him a little bit. He's really swinging it well right now."

At the plate Tennessee is led by Kentrail Davis, hitting .386 with four home runs and 19 RBI to lead the team in all three categories. As a team the Vols are only hitting .263 with just three players above .279 for the year. One thing they do a good job of though is being aggressive with 31 stolen bases in just 22 games this season.

Game times for the weekend are 6 p.m. on Friday, 3 p.m. on Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday.

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