With just nine SEC games remaining on the schedule, starting with a three-game series vs. Mississippi State that opens on Friday evening, the Tigers have little margin for error in their quest to reach postseason play.
"The players know we need to finish strong the next three weeks so we can have an opportunity to get to Birmingham, which is what every team in our league is shooting for," Slater says of the conference tournament. "We are still in that mix. We need to win series here the next three weeks and they know that. No amount of talk is going to change that."
Auburn is 8-13 in SEC play, but with only the 15-5-1 Georgia Bulldogs and Florida Gators (12-9) having won a dozen games in league competition the Tigers are still on life support for a tournament berth despite dropping eight of their last nine SEC games.
To close the season, Auburn will play a three-game series at Ole Miss next week before coming home to face LSU May15-17. This SEC Tournament runs May 21-25 just outside of Birmingham at Regions Park in Hoover.
In addition to running out of time, the Tigers are running out of starting pitchers with Cory Luckie out of action this week with an arm injury suffered on Saturday at Alabama. The Tigers were hoping to get their top returning starter, Paul Burnside, back in the starting rotation late in the season after rehabbing from a preseason injury, but he is not ready for that assignment.
Coach Tommy Slater
To take Luckie's spot in the rotation this week, sophomore right-hander Taylor Thompson, who is 2-4 with a 6.65 earned run average, will take the mound for Saturday's 6 p.m. game.
"He has actually started pitching here the last few weeks," says Slater, who notes that the addition of a more effective change-up and slider has helped. "His numbers aren't great--anybody can read a stat sheet from an ERA standpoint--but his confidence is better and he has been throwing more strikes and he has been more effective in actually being able to pitch a little bit with a couple of different pitches other than just his fastball."
Sunday's starter has yet to be determined, Slater says. Luke Greinke, who had a solid outing in a loss to Troy on Tuesday night, could get the call if he isn't used for relief in the Friday and Saturday games. Auburn's coach says he will deal with that decision of who to start on Sunday after game two is completed on Saturday.
It would help the Auburn cause if Friday night's starter, freshman lefty Grant Dayton, can keep the AU coaches from having to go to the bullpen early. Dayton is 6-1 with a 3.94 earned run average as he faces junior right-hander Chad Crosswhite, who is 2-3 with an 8.85 ERA.
"You would love to get six innings out of your starters at a minimum just to get you to your bullpen and not have to use up your bullpen too much," Slater says. "The formula for us has worked pretty well when we have been able to get six innings out of our starters and go to the bullpen for the seventh, eighth and ninth."
Slater, who notes that he hopes to have Luckie back for the Ole Miss series, says, "Last weekend, with Cory down with the injury after the second inning, that stretched us a little bit, but Taylor did a fine job. I am hopeful he can go out this weekend and take that four innings and turn it to six."
On Saturday, the Bulldogs will throw sophomore right-hander Ricky Bowen (2-5, 7.38 ERA) vs. the Tigers and on Sunday Justin Pigott (2-1, 4.13) is scheduled to start for Coach Ron Polk's team that swept a three-game series vs. Auburn last season in Starkville.
This season the Bulldogs, who have been plagued by injuries, are the only team in the SEC with an overall losing record at 18-26. The Bulldogs are 6-15 in league play after winning two of three last weekend vs. Tennessee.
Coach Ron Polk
Series Notes: AU officials will honor retiring MSU coach Ron Polk at 5:50 p.m. on Friday prior to the series opener. Former AU head coach Hal Baird will be on hand to present Polk a gift. Wrapping up his 35th year as head coach, Polk has been a strong voice promoting college baseball for decades across the SEC and around the nation. He has also been a harsh critic of how the NCAA administers the sport. "He is a great champion of college baseball and he has got strong beliefs," AU's Slater says...AU's leading hitter, freshman Hunter Morris, is listed as "day to day" as he continues to recover from a sore hip/side that kept him out of AU's last two games. Slater is hoping to be able to use the first baseman, who hasn't made an error in the field this year, as a designated hitter. Morris is batting .360 overall and a league-leading .436 in SEC games.
Hunter Morris has been Auburn's most impressive performer this season.
Mississippi State starting pitchers Crosswhite and Pigott have been limited by injuries this season. Crosswhite has eight starts in 2008 and Pigott has four...The Bulldogs have a hot pitcher in the bullpen. Aaron Wetherford is 2-0 with four saves and a 0.00 earned run average in 12 appearances. The junior, who played at Fairhope, Ala., High School, has struck out 43 batters and walked just six...As a team the Bulldogs are hitting .295, which is ninth among SEC teams. Auburn is fifth at .303. The Tigers are hitting slightly better vs. conference opponents at .304, which is the best mark in league-only statistics...Auburn's players are in the middle of spring semester final exams this week...The first 500 fans into Plainsman Park on Saturday night game will receive a mini wooden bat and the first 500 students into the game will receive a free T-shirt...On Sunday, the first 500 fans will receive set number four of the 2008 team trading card set. There is also a Family Day promotion in which a family of our can purchase four tickets, four hot dogs and four drinks for $40 and the kids can run the bases after the game.