AU Looks To Get Back On Track Against Vandy

Auburn will play Vanderbilt this weekend in a three-game series at Plainsman Park.

Auburn, Ala.--Looking to rebound from last weekend's sweep at the hands of the Arkansas Razorbacks, the Auburn Tigers (16-8, 2-4) return to conference action this weekend when they take on the Vanderbilt Commodores (16-8, 2-4) in a three-game series at Plainsman Park.

Auburn hasn't won a series against Vanderbilt since the 2002 season and is 3-10 against the Commodores over that span.

This season things won't be any easier as the Commodores come in led by one of the league's top pitching staffs with a team ERA of just 3.75. Leading the way is junior lefty Mike Minor (1-2, 3.41), who will get the start on Friday night. Sophomore Caleb Cotham (3-2, 3.90) will be the Saturday starter while senior Nick Christiani (3-0, 4.78) goes on Sunday.

Auburn coach John Pawlowski says you know what to expect when you face a Vanderbilt squad.

"They bring in a team that I think has some very good arms," Pawlowski notes. "I think when you look at this league and you look from top to bottom, there are some very good arms in this league. Certainly, Vanderbilt is no exception to that rule. Minor, who will pitch for them (Friday night) is one of the better ones in the league.

"We'll certainly have our hands full. It will be a challenge for us because after a tough weekend last weekend against Arkansas we need to find our way here in the SEC and make some improvements. It certainly will be a test and a challenge for us as far as offense with their arms versus our hitters."

On the flip side Auburn will counter with sophomore lefty Grant Dayton on Friday night, freshman Jon Luke Jacobs on Saturday and Auburn's Sunday still to be determined. Dayton is 2-2 with a 2.67 ERA this season while Jacobs is 2-0 with a 4.97 earned run average. That leaves plenty of options for Sunday's starter, something Pawlowski notes they will talk about following the first two games.

"We've got a couple of options," Pawlowski says. "We'll have all hands on deck Friday night except one guy. Jon Luke Jacobs will not pitch at all on Friday. Everybody else will be ready to go on Friday. It's an old cliché, but we're taking them one game at a time. We've got to have all hands on deck ready to go on Friday. After the game Saturday we'll sit down and evaluate where we're at and who will pitch."

Senior Paul Burnside has been the Sunday starter for the Tigers, but has struggled to regain his consistency this season with an 0-2 record and an ERA of 6.53. He's still a possibility on Sunday, but Pawlowski says that Taylor Thompson (1-1, 8.38), Bradley Hendrix (4-2, 3.66), Dexter Price (3-0, 4.68) and Zach Blatt (1-0, 3.12) could all have a shot on Sunday depending on how the weekend goes.

Whoever pitches for the Tigers will face a Vanderbilt offense much different than the last few years. In 2009 the Commodores are hitting .306, but have just 15 home runs as a team in 24 games. The lack of power hasn't kept them from scoring runs though as they have 177 this season. Much of that comes because of a strong running game (47-62 stolen bases) and the ability to play small ball with great success.

The Commodores to have plenty of production in the lineup though as Aaron Westlake is hitting .391 this season with seven doubles and 20 RBI. Steven Liddle has added two homers and 19 RBI with his .344 average while Curt Casali is the power threat with five homers, 28 RBI, and a .341 average.

By contrast Auburn has been bombing the ball out of the park at a record pace. Already with 51 home runs in 24 games, this Tiger team is 12th all-time in home runs in a single season in school history. Two players are mostly responsible for those numbers as Joseph Sanders leads the way with 11 homers, 35 RBI, and is hitting .327 for the season. Leadoff man Trent Mummey is hitting .389 with 10 homers, 27 RBI and 41 runs scored.

Auburn's ability to hit the long ball has been a big reason why the Tigers have won 16 games, but in the eight losses much of the reason has been the inability to do the fundamental things necessary to win close games. Pawlowski says that' is something the team has to focus on as it heads into the meat of the SEC schedule.

"When you hit home runs you can overlook a lot of little things," Pawlowski poins out. "If a guy doesn't get a bunt down and the next guy hits a three-run home run everybody is happy, but what about we didn't get the bunt down or didn't move a guy over. Home runs are not what we preach, but we'll take them.

"It's a prime example last weekend," he adds. "It's a 3-2 ball game and we didn't move some guys over and didn't get some guys in. When you face good pitching in this league it's about execution and doing the little things. Home runs, if they happen, great, but we have to do a better job of executing the short game. I tell them all the time the short game opens up the big game."

One of the biggest surprises this season has been the play of sophomore catcher Tony Caldwell. With projected starter Ryan Jenkins still out because of a broken bone in his hand, Caldwell has picked up the slack. Hitting .297 on the year with four home runs and 10 RBI, he is 12-22 in the last six games with two home runs and seven runs batted in. He has also thrown out 11 of 30 attempted stolen bases this year (37 percent).

Game times for the three-game series at Plainsman Park are scheduled for 6 p.m. on Friday, 3 p.m. on Saturday and 1 p.m. on Sunday. There is no TV coverage. With rain forecast for Friday evening the start time of that contest is in doubt.

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