"It's very important," Slater said. "The next four series I think are really important for every team in the league, this series in particular. The two of us are sitting right there at 8-10 and 7-11 battling for that SEC Tournament. It's an important series."
Even if it wasn't the two biggest rivals in the SEC playing this weekend, the fact that the two are so close in the standings would make for a big series. Throw in the factors surrounding the rivalry and Slater said you have three-games that become very big for both teams even regardless of the standings.
"I think to the number of kids from each roster that grew up in the State of Alabama it's always big," Slater said. "The fans in particular, any time Auburn and Alabama play it's huge. The number of kids on their roster and our roster from the state growing up knowing and hearing about this rivalry, it's always special."
For the first time this season Auburn will go into a weekend unsure of its rotation. Both Friday and Saturday will be the same as redshirt freshman Grant Dayton (5-1, 3.81 ERA) takes on Miers Quigley (4-3, 3.89) in the opener and true freshman Cory Luckie (4-4, 4.23) battles Austin Hyatt (3-3, 4.85) in the second game.
Grant Dayton has been outstanding on Friday nights for the Tigers.
It's on Sunday that things are up in the air as the Tigers are listed as TBA while Alabama will throw junior righty Robert Phares (1-3, 6.31). Slater said with the uncertainty of the bullpen for the Tigers they're going to treat the first two games as priority and then handle Sunday when it comes. If that means using Bradley Hendrix in a relief role on either Friday or Saturday then they‘re prepared to do just that.
"It will really depend on how the first two games go," Slater said. "We'll just take a look at who we've thrown in those first two games. If we need to use somebody who has started before out of the bullpen on Friday or Saturday to win a game we won't end up starting those guys on Sunday. We're going to fire the bullets we have to help us win games on Friday and Saturday. We'll deal with Sunday when we get there."
The lack of production out of the bullpen has taken an even bigger hit in recent weeks as neither Luke Greinke nor Scott Shuman has performed well. Neither made the trip last weekend to Vanderbilt and didn't help their chances with shaky performances this week against Samford. Slater said neither will make the trip to Tuscaloosa this weekend.
That may mean some work for junior Paul Burnside. Getting the start on Tuesday night, Burnside didn't allow a run, but still didn't look anywhere close to the form that saw him go 7-1 in 2007. Slater said he's a guy they'll have available this weekend, but he's not sure if Burnside will be able to help the Tigers or not.
"Tuesday was better than the other two outings, but I would say he wouldn't figure too strongly (in Auburn's plans)," Slater said. "He's still not exactly where we want him. He feels like he's stronger, he feels like he's better, but he dodged a lot of bullets Tuesday night…Paul is a competitor and he wants to be out there. I love him to death. I love his heart and his competitiveness, but I know what my eyes are telling me and they're telling me his stuff is not there yet."
Auburn will likely need a better offensive performance than last weekend if they hope to win at least two games in Tuscaloosa and stay in the race. The key for that may be the health of first baseman Hunter Morris. Bothered by a bruised side suffered on Tuesday night, Slater said Morris was better on Wednesday and he's hoping he'll be ready to go this weekend. He said they can also DH Morris with Joseph Sanders at first base if needed.
On the season Morris leads the SEC in hitting during conference games with a .451 average. In his last seven conference games, Morris has hit safely in all seven and has a home run or a double in all seven games. During the stretch he has 12 RBI and scored nine runs. In 18 conference games this season Morris has multiple hits in 11 games and has multiple RBI in six contests. He has failed to get a hit just twice in the SEC.
Game times for the weekend series in Tuscaloosa are 6:30 on Friday night, 3 p.m. on Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday. Saturday's game is the SEC Game of the Week on Fox Sports Net South while Sunday's game can be seen on CSS.