"When you start talking about Arkansas just purely from a numbers standpoint and watching them play on TV, obviously they have a lot of returning players from last year," coach John Pawlowski said. "You look at their numbers and it's an outstanding team. They are having a tremendous year. They are one of the elite teams in the SEC. You look at what they've done so far and going into their place, it will be a great challenge for our kids and our program. It's certainly going to be a good test. I believe Arkansas right now is one of the top teams in the country and their track record speaks for itself."
At the plate the Razorbacks are hitting .325 as a team with 60 home runs and 60 stolen bases. Leading the attack is Zack Cox with an average of .436, six home runs and 43 RBI, but he's just one of a big group of capable hitters for Dave Van Horn's club. Veterans Collin Kuhn (.380, 10 HR, 35 RBI), Brett Eibner (.324, 14, 49), and Andy Wilkins (.272, 11, 52) provide the punch for the Razorbacks on offense, but it's on the mound where they excel.
With a team ERA of just 3.70, a number that is better than all but four of Auburn's pitchers who have at least five appearances, Arkansas can stack up on the mound with anyone. Much of the reason for their success comes from their starters and in particular Drew Smyly. Perfect at 6-0 this year, he has an ERA of 2.22 and has struck out 62 and walked only 23 this year.
He's expected to get the start on Friday with Eibner on Saturday. In addition to his offensive numbers, Eibner is 3-3 on the mound with a 4.04 ERA. Mike Bollinger (4-2, 4.22) is expected to be the guy on Sunday. Pawlowski said in all phases of the game Arkansas presents a tough challenge for the Tigers.
"They are a strike-throwing machine," Pawlowski said of Arkansas' pitching staff. "They throw a ton of strikes. They know how to play. Last year when we played them they came back and hit a home run late in the game. They scored a couple of runs late in the second game against us. They just know how to play. They have been to the pinnacle, the College World Series. They return a lot of guys and they don't beat themselves. They can hit home runs and they can pitch. Those are two of the reasons why they are where they are in the standings right now."
It will be a match up of quality pitching against outstanding hitting as Auburn's offense enters as one of the top units in the country. Ranked in the Top 10 in the nation in batting average, hits, runs, home runs, and slugging percentage, Auburn's key is balance as every player with at least 10 at-bats this season is currently hitting over .300. Leading the way is Hunter Morris with a .403 average, 13 home runs and 53 RBI.
"I think one of the biggest things I like about our lineup is the versatility," Pawlowski said. "When we played Samford they were throwing a right-hander and I was able to put Dan Gamache at third base. If the team is throwing a lefty I can put Wes Gilmer in there. I can put Ryan Jenkins behind the plate or Tony Caldwell. I think our lineup is pretty balanced. The guys have settled in to their spots in the lineup. I think one of the biggest boosts we've had not only energy-wise, but productivity-wise, is the addition of Trent Mummey."
Missing the first 28 games because of an ankle injury, Mummey has come back with a vengeance this season. Playing in all 14 games since his return with 13 starts, the junior is hitting .368 with seven home runs, 22 RBI and 18 runs scored.
Auburn will once again send Cory Luckie to the mound on Friday night looking to get the Tigers off to a good start. This season he is 5-2 with a 6.64 ERA, but has pitched much better in recent weeks. On Saturday the starting pitcher is still to be determined for Auburn, but once again Grant Dayton will see his usual Sunday start. He is 4-2 with a 5.14 ERA this season and Pawlowski said because he's settled in on Sunday he'll likely stay there for the Tigers this season.
Game times for the weekend series are 6:30 p.m. on Friday, 2 p.m. on Saturday and 1 p.m. on Sunday.