To do that the Tigers will have to take down one of the best statistical teams in the league this year. At 27-8 overall and 6-6 in conference play, Vanderbilt has been strong at home this season with a 22-3 mark. The numbers don't lie either when you look at the Commodores in all areas of the game.
At the plate Vanderbilt is fourth in the league in hitting with a .327 average and is third with 52 stolen bases. Leading the way is Bryan Johns with a .381 average and 27 runs scored. Veterans Jason Esposito (.333, 7 HR, 40 RBI) and Aaron Westlake (.290, 5, 27) provide the power for the Commodores along with Andrew Giobbi (.329, 3, 31), but it's on the mound where Vanderbilt makes it living.
Leading the league and one of the top pitching staffs in the country with a 2.92 ERA, the Commodores are holding opponents to a collective batting average of .252 and have four shutouts this season. As a staff they have issued just 113 walks while striking out 291. Auburn coach John Pawlowski said when you look at Vanderbilt several things stand out, but the pitching is at the top of the list.
"The first thing I think about when I start talking about Vanderbilt is their pitching staff," Pawlowski said. "It is very unusual in college baseball this late in the season to have a team ERA that is under 3.0. You look at what they've done on the pitching staff and I believe they've had 21 games where they've given up three runs or less. Obviously when you start thinking about the strength of their club it's obvious to me they can really pitch. It's why they've been successful. It's what they've built their program around. It's a big weekend for our hitters offensively. They run three starters out there on the weekend that are as good as anybody in the conference."
Sonny Gray (4-4, 2.44 ERA), Jack Armstrong (5-0, 3.43) and Taylor Hill (3-3, 3.51) will get the call for the Commodores this weekend and will be in charge of slowing down an Auburn offense that has been lights out this season. Hitting .350 as a team with 56 home runs, the Tigers are averaging just over nine runs per game overall and eight and a half runs per game in conference play.
Hunter Morris leads Auburn with a .408 average, 10 home runs, and 41 RBI and has been even better in conference play. In 12 SEC games the junior first baseman is hitting .453 with five home runs and 18 RBI. With Justin Bryant possibly out for the rest of the year offensively because of a broken bone in his left hand, catcher Tony Caldwell is second on the team with 10 RBI in conference play along with three home runs. Amazingly center fielder Trent Mummey is already third on the list with seven RBI despite playing in just three conference games.
Third in the league in hitting, second in hits and home runs, third in RBI and first in slugging percentage, Morris said it's fun to be in the thick of the race nearing the halfway point in league play, but things don't get any easier when you play in the SEC.
"Every year it comes down to a very small separation between one and 1-6 in our division and 1-12 across the board," Morris said. "You're always in it and never out of the race. You can never build enough of a lead in this league. It's important for us to just grind it out and come out and play well and have the right attitude when we get up to Vanderbilt this weekend and take it one game at a time. You want to try to win every series and every series as big as you can, but it doesn't always happen like that. Every opponent is tough. For us to be sitting where we are is encouraging if we can keep going out and doing that every weekend."
On the mound for the Tigers will be junior Cole Nelson (4-2, 4.61) on Friday night and fellow junior Grant Dayton (4-1, 5.18) on Sunday with either Cory Luckie (3-2, 8.39) or Slade Smith (1-0, 4.15) the likely starter for Saturday's contest. Knowing they must pitch well this weekend because of Vanderbilt's stellar staff on the other side, Dayton said it doesn't change the approach though because they've got confidence that Auburn's hitters will score runs no matter who they're up against.
"You have to know our offense is pretty good and I can't let that affect the way I'm going to pitch," Dayton said. "I'm going out there with my gameplan and pitch to my strengths and hopefully get the job done. I believe that I can. I believe in our hitters. They do have a good staff and a real good team. Their offense is real good too, but I can't let that affect my gameplan. I'm going out there and pitch my game and let baseball take its course."
Game times for the weekend series at Vanderbilt are 6 p.m. on Friday, 2 p.m. on Saturday and 1 p.m. on Sunday. Sunday's game can be seen live on ESPNU.