Baseball Tigers Hope To Keep Phoenix From Rising

Up to 12th in the latest polls, the Auburn Tigers (9-3) play the Elon Phoenix (7-3) this weekend in a three-game baseball series at Plainsman Park.

Auburn, Ala.--Through most of the 12 games in the 2003 season the Auburn baseball Tigers have been up-and-down with either brilliant pitching or explosive offense showing up at the ballpark. This weekend Auburn will look to combine the two as the visiting Elon Phoenix bring an experienced and dangerous club to the Plains.

Winners of at least one game over a Top 25 opponent in five straight seasons, the Phoenix come into the weekend with a record of 7-3 that includes a 4-1 win over No. 7 Wake Forest earlier this season. A 2002 NCAA Regional team, Elon has already played games against North Carolina State, Charlotte and East Carolina in addition to its victory over the Demon Decons. No stranger to playing quality competition, the Phoenix should present the Tigers with a stern test.

With one of the best pitching staffs Auburn will face in the pre-conference schedule, Elon has allowed just 23 earned runs in 10 games this season. Friday night the Tigers will send sophomore Arnold Hughey to the mound to face right-hander Justin Weeks from Elon. Hughey is 2-0 this season with a 1.89 ERA while Weeks, a sophomore, is 1-0 with a 0.66 earned run average.

Saturday Eric Brandon, who returned to his old style and pitched solidly against Clemson last weekend, will get the start against junior Matt Garner from Elon. Brandon is 1-1 with an 8.22 ERA in four starts and Garner is 2-1 with a 2.63 ERA.

Sunday has junior right-hander Colby Paxton taking the mound for Auburn against Tyson Blocker for the Phoenix. Paxton returned from an arm injury to throw four innings last Sunday against Clemson and comes into the weekend with a record of 1-1 and an ERA of 2.16. A senior, Blocker is 1-1 with a 6.75 earned run average this season.

Dependent on a pitching staff that is giving up a batting average of just .219 to opponents this season, Elon is winning despite hitting only .248 with five home runs in 10 games. Something the Phoenix does is hit doubles, 21 of them to be exact. While Elon doesn't have great power the team does a good job of putting runners in scoring position.

Leading the way at the plate is Mike Hromadka, who is hitting .357 with one home run and three runs batted in. The only everyday player hitting over .300 is Evan Tartaglia, who has an average of .314 with six runs batted in this season. Brian Ingram is perhaps Elon's most dangerous batter, hitting .289 with three doubles and nine runs batted in.

While Auburn's starting pitching improved last weekend against Clemson, the strength of the staff remains in the bullpen where relievers Levale Speigner (2.57 ERA) and Cory Dueitt (1.84 ERA) and closer Steven Register (3.86 ERA) have been successful for the majority of this young season. With an overall record of 5-1 with six saves, the trio has given Coach Steve Renfroe confidence to go to the bullpen at any time this season, something that hasn't always been the case.

Josh Bell has proven to be a good addition to the Auburn lineup.

The Tigers continue to obtain production up and down the batting order as six everyday players enter the weekend hitting over .300 and all nine regulars hitting at least .268. With a team batting average of .329 with nine home runs, three triples and 16 doubles, Auburn has shown the ability to score runs in bunches this season.

Leading the way is true freshman Josh Bell, who is hitting .400 with two home runs and seven runs batted in. He leads the team in doubles with four and has struck out just five times in 45 at-bats. Scott Schade (.395), Sean Gamble (.364), Clete Thomas (.333), Tug Hulett (.333) and Javon Moran (.300) join Bell above the .300 mark through 12 games this season.

Maybe the best sign for the 2003 Tigers happened Tuesday night as Bobby Huddleston hit two home runs and had three hits with four RBI to lead his team to a 5-1 win over Troy State. With his second two home run game of the season, the first player since Gabe Gross in 2001 to accomplish the feat, Huddleston leads the team with four home runs and seven runs batted in. Hitting .268 after starting the season with just one hit in his first 14 at-bats, he has a batting average of .370 over his last seven games and will be a big key for the Tigers as they head into the SEC schedule in two weeks.

"This weekend will be a big challlenge for us," says Auburn coach Steve Renfroe. "They were a regional team last season. They are always a tough team."

Game times for the weekend are 3 p.m. CST on both Friday and Saturday with a 1:30 p.m. start scheduled for Sunday. Saturday's game follows Auburn's basketball game against #4 Florida at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum.

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