Currently tied with Alabama for seventh in the SEC standings, the winner would have a leg up on a berth to Hoover for the SEC Tournament later this spring. Auburn coach John Pawlowski said it's something his team is focused on because the importance continues to grow as the team gets deeper into the season.
"You do pay attention to the standings," Pawlowski said. "You try to tell your kids not to worry about where we are and just find a way to get better as a ball club. As a coach you sit there and watch and look at it. You've got 15 opportunities left. We're right in the middle of the pack, the same with South Carolina. The importance of every game and every series continues to build. This is certainly one of those series."
Led by a pitching staff that has an ERA of 4.96 and is holding opponents to a batting average of .252 this season, the Gamecocks are coming off of an impressive weekend as they went to Ole Miss and took two of three from the Rebels. While his numbers don't bear it out, the star of the staff is Friday night starter Sam Dyson. With a record of 5-2 this season and an ERA of 5.21, Dyson can throw into the upper 90's and will be a tough task for the Auburn hitters.
At the plate the Gamecocks are a deep and talented offensive team with an average of .304 on the season and 64 home runs. Leading the charge is DeAngelo Mack at .343 with 10 homers and 39 RBI. He is one of six South Carolina hitters with at least six home runs and all are hitting at least .318. The big power threat is Nick Ebert. Hitting .339, he has 13 home runs and 41 RBI in only 112 at-bats.
With a history of playing solid fundamental baseball along with the ability to beat you with the long ball, the Gamecocks have dealt Auburn fits since the Tigers last beat them in a series way back in 1997. Since that time the two teams have played 30 times with Auburn winning just six games. Pawlowski said while their record doesn't match what they've done in past years, this version of the Gamecocks is just as dangerous.
"Traditionally coach (Ray) Tanner's teams have always been very physical and strong," Pawlowski said. "Guys that can hit the home run. I think they can beat you in a lot of different ways this year. They can hit some home runs and they've got some speed. They play solid defense.
"One of the things that makes them even tougher right now is their Friday night guy probably has the best fastball in the league," he added. "Dyson has a very good arm. He's going to be a very early draft pick. I think it will be a great battle for us down there. We'll have to have a good approach offensively and we'll have to really pitch this weekend."
That approach will once again start with second baseman Justin Hargett at the top of the order. Hitting .349 this season with an on-base percentage of .432, the sophomore was in the nine-hole until Pawlowski decided to make the move to the top. That slid Trent Mummey down into the two spot with Joseph Sanders hitting third. Pawlowski said it's something they'll continue to do because it gives Sanders a better chance to do what he does best.
"He gives us another option up there," Pawlowski said of Hargett. "You put your two better on-base percentage guys, him and Trent Mummey, on before your best RBI guy. It makes sense in theory. Whether it works or not remains to be seen, but I like that. It gives us another look."
On the mound the Tigers will send sophomore Grant Dayton out on Friday night looking to regain his form after two tough starts in recent weeks. He is currently 2-3 with a 4.24 ERA in eight starts. Saturday Auburn will use redshirt freshman Jon Luke Jacobs in the starting role. He is 3-2 with a 6.00 earned run average. Pawlowski said the Tigers are TBA on Sunday with Taylor Thompson (2-2, 7.84) and Paul Burnside (1-2, 6.47) two of the options.
Game times for the weekend are 7 p.m. on Friday, 4 p.m. on Saturday and 1:30 Sunday afternoon. All times are EDT with Saturday's game being shown on SportSouth.