Currently 36-17 overall and 17-10 in SEC play, Auburn is looking to win a series at Ole Miss for the first time since 2004 and two wins would give the Tigers their first division title in 15 years.
"When you start a season, start the journey, you hope that you're in a position to fight and play for a conference championship," Auburn coach John Pawlowski said. "I'm certainly proud of what our kids have done. It's going to be a great challenge. Ole Miss is one of the top teams in the conference, one of the top teams in the country. It's a tremendous college environment and a great test for our kids."
Auburn will have its work cut out this week as the Tigers will face one of the best pitchers in the country on Thursday night in junior Drew Pomeranz. This season, Pomeranz has been a top performer for the Rebels and on a national level. The southpaw has posted a 7-1 record on the year and leads the Southeastern Conference in strikeouts (121), ERA (2.15) and opposing batting average (.176). The junior was named the Midseason Player and Pitcher of the Year by Baseball America and is expected to be a Top 10 selection in the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft coming up in June.
He's not the only strong pitcher for the Rebels as Friday starter Aaron Barrett has just about been Pomeranz's equal in 2010. In 13 starts the senior is 7-2 with a 3.26 ERA and has allowed opponents to hit just .215 this season. After that it has been a mixed bag for the Rebels as the team has an ERA of 4.32. Veteran David Goforth leads the rest of the staff with 51 innings pitched and eight starts, but has a 7.75 ERA.
At the plate Ole Miss (36-17, 16-11) is hitting .294 as a team with 56 home runs in 53 games. The problem for the Rebels has been in conference play where they are hitting just .266 as a team, which is last in the SEC through 27 games. Leading the way is a trio of guys that have all the tools at the plate.
Powerful Matt Smith is hitting .355 with 12 home runs and 51 RBI, all of which lead the Rebels. Tim Ferguson's .329 average, eight home runs and 13 doubles make him a presence in the order for Ole Miss. Banged up and questionable this weekend because of a shoulder injury, Matt Snyder is hitting .324 with nine homers and 31 RBI. Amazingly the Rebels have been outscored in SEC play this season, but have still managed to stay in the fight for the division. Pawlowski said that's a sign of a team that knows how to win.
"They find ways to win," Pawlowski said. "Mike Bianco does a great job with that team. I think playing in their home environment, you look at what they've done, they're always fighting for conference championships. It's an experienced team. He does a great job with them. One of the biggest things is that when you've got a legitimate Friday night guy you go into the weekend thinking you can get Friday night and figure out Saturday and Sunday. He's been that mainstay for them for a number of years."
Catcher Ryan Jenkins is hitting .403 in SEC play this season with five homers and 20 RBI in just 67 at-bats.
While Ole Miss has been struggling swinging the bat, Auburn is on the other end of the spectrum. Hitting .354 overall and .337 in SEC play, the Tigers lead the nation in home runs with 105 after both Hunter Morris and Trent Mummey homered in a win over Jacksonville State Tuesday night. Auburn also leads the nation in slugging percentage at .596 and is scoring just over 9.3 runs per game.
From top to bottom Auburn's lineup is potent with the middle of the order especially dangerous. In the two hole Mummey is hitting .371 with 14 home runs and 39 RBI in just 25 games played this season. Brian Fletcher is third and is currently at .362 with 18 homers and 66 RBI. Morris follows with a .398 average, 20 home runs and 66 RBI.
The 52 home runs from three players is tied for the most in school history for a trio with the 1998 group of Josh Etheridge (21), Todd Faulkner (20) and Scott Pratt (11). Morris is two home runs shy of the school record of 22 that Faulkner hit in 2000.
On the mound the Tigers will send sophomore Cory Luckie to the mound on Thursday while juniors Grant Dayton and Cole Nelson are likely to be the starters on Friday and Saturday. All left-handers, Luckie is 6-3 with a 6.36 ERA, Nelson's complete game, three-hit shutout win over Tennessee last weekend improved his record to 6-3 while his ERA of 4.60 is the best of the Auburn starting staff. With a short week coming up before the SEC Tournament, the Tigers may try to turn around Dayton for a Friday start this week. This year he is 7-2 with an ERA of 4.80.
If Auburn can get to the bullpen late then things should be in good shape with Hubbard having a fantastic season for the Tigers. 4-2 with a 2.34 ERA in 22 appearances, the senior has eight saves and opponents are hitting just .226 against the former standout quarterback at Homewood High turned closer. A veteran of the SEC battles, Hubbard said this team is looking forward to the challenge of going into a hostile environment with a title on the line.
"It's awesome to go into places like this," Hubbard said. "The last time we were there they were renovating the stadium. It was still pretty cool. We love playing at home, but on the road is just a different animal. I think we all love playing on the road. The outfielders take some heat from the fans. The fans behind us give us some heat, but it's what we signed up for when we all decided to come here.
"We know that nobody is really going to be cheering for us," he added. "We'll have our group that comes with us but it's kind of us against them I guess you could say. It's awesome."
Game times for the weekend series are set for 6:30 p.m. CDT on both Thursday and Friday with Saturday's start time at 4 p.m. There is no television for the series.