Midweek victories over Alabama and Western Kentucky were perfect examples of Auburn's play this season. Against the Crimson Tide, the Tigers jumped out early, gave up the lead, and scored two in the ninth for the win. Against the Hilltoppers, Auburn scored 11 runs in the first two innings and held on for an 11-7 win.
It's those kinds of performances that first-year coach John Pawlowski expected when taking over a new program. Now taking the show on the road for the second time after two games at Florida State, Pawlowski said he's anxious to see how his team responds against a very good Tennessee team.
"In the early season we are still trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. I feel we have made some progress in some areas and certainly we have to make some improvements in others because as everyone knows what this conference is all about. Going into Knoxville and playing a much improved Tennessee team, Todd Raleigh does a great job and from the way it looks they have improved in a lot of areas. Friday is one that our club is definitely looking forward to."
Showing explosive power, but still struggling somewhat on the mound, Auburn will face almost a mirror image this weekend against Tennessee. In midweek games against Western Kentucky (14-8) and Louisville (lost 13-10), the Volunteers continued to pound the baseball led by Blake Forsythe (.400, 8 HR, 20 RBI). He is the main cog at the moment in an offense that is hitting .321 with 27 home runs and 26 doubles. Also worth watching is Mobile native Kentrail Davis (.318, 3, 8) as well as productive freshman Cody Hawn (.327, 7, 24).
Grant Dayton gets the call for the Tigers in the opener.
On the mound the Volunteers will send out junior left-hander Nick Hernandez on Friday night for a team with an ERA of 5.57. He enters the weekend with a 1-0 record and an ERA of 4.40. Saturday's starter is junior righty Stephen McCray, 2-0 with a 3.21 ERA. Sunday the Vols are TBA. Auburn's rotation is similar with sophomore Grant Dayton (1-1, 3.57) on Friday, freshman Jon Luke Jacobs (1-0, 3.52) on Saturday and TBA on Sunday.
At the plate Auburn has been on fire to start the season, hitting .304 with 33 home runs and 36 doubles as a team. Leading the pack is sophomore center fielder Trent Mummey. He's leading the nation in runs scored with 30, hitting .433, and has also added eight home runs. Joseph Sanders is behind him at .354 with seven homers while Justin Hargett has come on strong and is up to .346 with a home run and 18 runs scored.
One of the keys for the Tigers has been Brian Fletcher's resurgence at the plate. Starting the year just 4-18 with four RBI in the first six games, the sophomore has hit safely in nine-straight since then with 13 runs batted in to show for it. Pawlowski said right now it has been good to see different players make plays offensively for the Tigers.
"I have been encouraged by our offense," Pawlowski said. "I think that is one of the things that we have some weapons. In this league you better be able to score some runs and score runs in a lot of different ways, whether it's the short game or the ability to hit some home runs, which we have been fortunate enough to do that early. Some guys have really stepped up."
Also stepping up has been Auburn's bullpen in recent outings. Closer Austin Hubbard (2-0, 2.79) and relievers Bradley Hendrix (2-2, 4.50) and Zach Blatt (1-0, 3.60) have all come up huge in recent outings for the Tigers. Pawlowski said the key for Auburn's bullpen has been Hubbard's progression into a role they were sorely looking to fill.
"I think the biggest thing we're trying to find out is we've got to find a way to bridge the gap between our starters and our closer," Pawlowski said. "Right now our closer looks like it's going to be Austin Hubbard. He's done a really good job. It's nice to have a guy down there. Any successful team has somebody that is able to get a strikeout or make a big pitch in a certain situation. I think Austin has done that."
Game times for the weekend series at Tennessee are 6 p.m. on Friday, 3 p.m. on Saturday and noon on Sunday. All times are Central.