Winners of nine of their last 10 games overall, the Vols are 8-2 in their last 10 SEC games to move into eighth-place in the league with two series remaining. That is impressive considering Tennessee was 0-7 to start conference play after being swept by both South Carolina and LSU to start the season.
"When you look at Tennessee, they are one of the teams that has completely turned their season around," Auburn head coach John Pawlowski says.
The Vols are 28-21 overall and 11-13 in SEC games. "They are playing as well as anybody in the conference right now," Pawlowski says. "I think their pitching staff has certainly improved. They are talented.
"It doesn't surprise me to see how well they are playing because of the talent level they have on that team now," adds the Auburn coach, whose team is 33-16 overall and 15-9 in the SEC.
While the numbers might not show it, Tennessee has a pitching staff that is capable of going deep into games. On Friday night Stephen McCray has been solid. He has a 5-3 record and an earned run average of just 2.78. Steven Gruver (4-3, 5.51) and Bryan Morgado (2-6, 7.03) round out the rotation for a staff with a collective ERA of just over 5.60.
The Vols can get it done on the mound at times, but it's at the plate where Tennessee has improved dramatically. Hitting just over .300 as a team, the Vols are led by the potent bat of speedy outfielder P.J. Polk. With 12 home runs, 46 RBI and 22 stolen bases, he has everything a team is looking for in a player at the top of the batting order.
He's far from the only dangerous hitter in the Tennessee lineup though as veterans Cody Hawn (11 home runs, 53 RBI) and Blake Forsythe (11 home runs, 47 RBI) both deliver pop in the middle of the Volunteer order. As a team Tennessee has 69 home runs and 70 stolen bases.
Auburn is looking to continue a streak against the Vols as the Tigers have won the past two series from Tennessee, including taking two of three against what was the seventh-ranked team in the country last season when the teams squared off in Knoxville.
Game times for the weekend series at Auburn's Plainsman Park are 6:30 p.m. CDT on Friday, 3 p.m. on Saturday and 1 p.m. on Sunday.
With a strong finish in the regular season, the Tigers could make a run at being a host for an NCAA Regional. However, Pawlowski says he wants his team's focus to be squarely on this weekend series and qualifying for the SEC Tournament with six conference games to play.
Auburn's magic number to qualify for the SEC Tournament in Hoover is two--either two victories by the Tigers or two losses by Alabama, which currently has the eighth best record in the SEC, one game behind Tennessee.
"These guys know what is stake," Pawlowski says. "They read, they can see everything, they know the numbers, they know where we are in the standings, but I don't want them to get ahead of themselves. My focus always has been, and always will be, to take one step at a time. That first step, and it is a very important step, is to get into the SEC Tournament."