With two victories Auburn would win its first divisional title since 1995, but it won't be easy as the Rebels are 22-9 at home this season and feature almost a sure thing on the mound to open the series.
Expected to be one of the top five players taken in the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft in in June, junior lefty Drew Pomeranz is a dominant force on the mound for the Rebels. With a 7-1 record this season and an ERA of just 2.15, Pomeranz was named the mid-season player of the year by Baseball America and has been just as good in SEC play with a 5-1 record and 2.40 earned run average. On the year he has struck out 121 batters while walking 43 and is holding opponents to a batting average of .176.
Pomeranz is a pitcher that Auburn is familiar with, having seen him each of the last two seasons on the mound. Junior first baseman Hunter Morris knows even more about Pomeranz having played with and against him several more times over the past few years. When asked to describe the big lefty on the mound, the Auburn slugger says that's easy.
"He's just a big, strong, well-built, left-handed pitcher," Morris points out. "He's every big league club's dream. He's going to be a very high draft pick. He's got great stuff, a good fastball and breaking ball. He comes right after you and gets a lot of strikeouts. The numbers are there.
"He's proven himself over the last three years," Morris adds. "He was a great pitcher out of high school so it has just carried over. He's continued to get better and better. Having known him for such a long time I enjoy seeing his success, but hopefully we can go in and rain on his parade a little bit this weekend."
Hunter Morris is hitting .409 in SEC play with 12 home runs and 36 runs batted in.
Pomeranz is just the start of what is a very strong pitching staff for the Rebels. The second part of one of the country's best one-two punches comes in game two as big right-hander Aaron Barrett. Currently 7-2 this year with an ERA of just 3.26, Barrett has a 3-2 mark in league play while his ERA is still under four at 3.93. He has struck out 88 and walked 38 this season. Morris said having two strong pitchers out of the gate makes it tough for the Tigers, especially with the strikeout numbers both have put up this season.
"With guys who have that good of out pitches you're almost in two-strike battle mode from pitch one," Morris says. "It's almost like you're in an 0-2 count to start with. You're fighting trying to get something to hit. If you can string a few hits together and put a couple of runs on the board and get some pitch counts up and get into the bullpen then anything can happen. I think our strategy is going to be to battle and pick out specific locations and pitches that we want to hit and try to attack that way."
Two weekends ago the Arkansas Razorbacks came to Swayze Field in Oxford and managed to win two of three, but they did it in front of 24,217 fans for the weekend. Averaging over 8,000 fans for that weekend, the smallest crowd to see the Rebels play a home game this season was 5,639 back in early March. While that might be a big deal for some teams, Morris notes that this group of Tigers has plenty of experience in hostile situations and is looking forward to what the weekend has in store at Ole Miss.
"If nothing else it can be more motivation than anything," Morris says. "There will be 10,000 people there that really don't like you and don't want us to win. You take that and say okay I'm going to do it anyway. The motivation is there and we've really got something to play for so we're not going to let the external stuff like that get to us. We're going to go about our business the right way. We're going to do everything we can to win."
Three years ago Morris and the other members of his signee class came to Auburn with the pressure of being the group that was going to turn around the fortunes of Tiger baseball. That dream for many has become a reality and two wins over Ole Miss would make the turnaround complete with a division title. There are easier places to go and win on the last weekend of the regular season, but Morris said this team wouldn't have it any other way.
"The group that we had coming in, a lot of high expectations came with that," Morris says. "To see that finally all come together is very exciting. The past couple of years has really helped us grow and mature and understand what it is that we have to do. The hostile environment doesn't even really play a factor anymore because we have such an experienced team. There's nothing they can say that we haven't heard before.
"You kind of put that aside and don't worry about that kind of stuff," he adds. "You just go about your business the same way you would at home in front of our crowd. At the end of the day you've got to hit and pitch and field and play the game the right way and it will all take care of itself."
Game times for the three-game series are 6:30 p.m. on both Thursday and Friday with Saturday's regular season finale scheduled for 4 p.m.