Battle Of The Tigers Set For Plainsman Park

Auburn takes on LSU in a three-game series at Plainsman Park beginning Thursday night.

Auburn, Ala.--Looking for a miracle this week, the Auburn Tigers take on the LSU Tigers in the final series of the baseball season at Plainsman Park needing a sweep to keep any hopes alive for the postseason.

Trailing Kentucky, Arkansas and South Carolina by three games and needing two of those teams to be swept, Auburn is in an unenviable position.

Coach Tommy Slater says despite the long odds his team will continue to play hard and he's looking for a good performance out of his club.

"Our guys have a great belief in themselves," Slater says. "They know how close we've been in a number of games. They know that we very well could have won a lot of those seven games. These kids have a lot of confidence in themselves and they continue to play. They believe in themselves so they'll go out and play."

Currently 11-16 in SEC games and 28-25 overall, Auburn has lost seven league games by one run. That makes for a long year of "what if" for the team, but in the end it's about winning and losing and the 2008 Tigers haven't been consistent enough to make a run in the SEC. Part of the reason for that has been spotty starting pitching for much of the year, but lately that hasn't been the case.

Two solid weekends out of Grant Dayton (7-1, 3.65 ERA), Taylor Thompson (3-5, 5.71) and Luke Greinke (4-4, 4.47) have been a welcome relief for the Tigers, particularly the pitching of Thompson. Struggling as an early starter, he was moved to the bullpen where success was minimal. He finally turned things around late in the season and Slater says he has become a force for Auburn on the mound.

"The last month he's really come into his own," Slater says. "It has been fun to watch his maturation on and off the field. He's become a different guy. We wouldn't do anything differently because I don't think he would be where he is today if he hadn't gone through that."

A good performance is needed out of Auburn's starters on the mound as LSU comes in as the hottest team in the country with 13 consecutive wins overall and nine-straight in SEC play. Led by the power of Blake Dean, the Tigers have pounded out the offense in recent weeks, but Slater says it's all about the pitching as far as he's concerned. LSU will send junior left-handed Ryan Verdugo (7-2, 3.44) to the mound on Thursday, junior lefty Blake Martin (4-3, 4.80) on Friday. Saturday's starter has not been announced.

"Obviously they have been swinging the bats well, but first and foremost they have been pitching well," Slater says of LSU. "You look at their pitching numbers and the emergence of a couple of guys in their rotation has really taken the pressure off Bradford. They've been swinging the bats well also. We know they're very athletic and have some good bat swingers in the lineup."

Hunter Morris has a shot to be Auburn's triple crown winner this season.

At the plate Auburn is led by a big group of quality hitters. Sophomore Joseph Sanders carries a 17-game hitting streak into the series, having hit a home run in three straight games. The streak is the second 17-game hitting streak of the year for Auburn as junior shortstop Matt Hall also put one together earlier in the season.

Auburn's offense has been firing on all cylinders lately, hitting 21 home runs in its last 13 games to bring the season total up to 53, which is the 10th-best single-season mark in Auburn history. The team also has 129 doubles, which is eighth-best all-time, and 195 extra-base hits, also eighth.

Freshman Hunter Morris enters the weekend in a position to become Auburn's first freshman triple crown winner since DeWayne Friend in 1983 as he currently leads the team with a .367 batting average and is tied for the team lead with Sanders with 49 RBI. The category he trails in is home runs, in which he has 11 and Mike Bianucci has 12.

One of the top performers for the Tigers has been freshman left fielder Brian Fletcher. Hitting .316 overall this season, Fletcher has stepped it up in SEC play with a .333 average, six of his eight home runs and 24 of his 37 RBI this season. Because of that and the recent power supplied by Bianucci, Slater says they put Fletcher in the number two spot vs. Mercer on Tuesday and it's likely something that will happen again vs. LSU.

"We wanted to take a look at that because in the league he's been swinging the bat well, hitting around .350," Slater says of Fletcher. "We wanted to take a look at that and also Mike behind Hunter. We had Mike in front of Hunter. Mike has been driving the ball out of the park a little bit more. Mike has a higher on base percentage than Fletch, which is the reason we had him in the two hole. He's one of our better base runners, but by putting him down at four it spreads out our speed a little bit."

Game times for the series are 6 p.m. on Thursday and Friday with a 2 p.m. start on Saturday.

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