The top seed in the regional with a record of 40-19 overall, Auburn is a solid favorite over Jacksonville State (32-24) and is expected to go on to face the winner of Clemson-Southern Miss in the second round on Saturday. Auburn coach John Pawlowski said that after seeing the Gamecocks on the field recently he knows if the Tigers advance they'll need to play well.
"Obviously, the ramifications and the meaningfulness of this game are very significant," Pawlowski said. "It's in the tournament and in the regionals and in postseason play. The stakes are higher. We know that when we played them before, we had a heck of a ballgame with them, and it ended up being a two-run game, and we came back in the bottom of the eighth. It was a very good game.
"We know the type of ball club that they have. You've done something right when you've won 32 games, you've won your conference and have won seven or eight games in a row. They've hit 70-plus home runs, and they can steal bags. They have 91 stolen bases. They've done a lot of things right to be in this kind of position. I've told our guys that we have to be ready to play on Friday night."
Getting the baseballs ready for the regional this weekend.
While it was a loss, the game gave the Gamecocks a lot of confidence that they could play with one of the best teams in the country. Spurred on by the narrow defeat, JSU won its final six games of the season including the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament to advance into the NCAA field. Outfielder Todd Cunningham said the game did wonders for the team and is a confidence booster this week in the regional.
"It's definitely a confidence issue," Cunningham said. "We come in and play at their park and play them a good game so as far as confidence goes we feel like we're right in it. We're excited about getting to play here. The dimensions of the field are a little different but getting a game in here earlier in the season definitely helps.
"As far as a confidence factor we're on a roll right now. We played good last weekend in our conference tournament. We have to feel good about this match up."
While there is confidence from the Gamecocks, they are also aware that the Tigers are a sleeping giant offensively. Hitting .348 as a team with a school record and national-best 117 home runs, Auburn has been solid all season long from top to bottom in the order and that's what stands out to JSU coach Jim Case.
"Certainly they are athletic but if you look at them as a team the thing that stood out is the way they swing the bats," Case said. "1-9 it's hard to get to a place where you feel very comfortable. Everybody in the lineup swings the bat. They have some guys that can run, but they have a lot of guys that can hit the ball a long way. That's one of the things they've been able to do. From a pitching and defensive standpoint the thing you try to do is keep the ball in the ballpark."
What should help make Auburn's offense even stronger this weekend is the return of outfielders Brian Fletcher and Trent Mummey. Both banged up with hand (Fletcher) and hamstring (Mummey) problems, the junior duo practiced and looked to be doing well on Thursday. With a combined 35 home runs and 117 RBI, they are a big part of things for the Tigers and Pawlowski said they're on track in his mind.
"I think both of those guys have progressed pretty well," Pawlowski said. "I think our training staff and John Michelini have done a great job. Every day I saw signs that they are getting better. Just in our short practice today, Trent (Mummey) was moving around pretty well in center field and tracking balls during batting practice. Both those guys swung the bat. Fletch swung the bat pretty good during batting practice. I think they are making great progress, and I would hope that both of them are in the lineup tomorrow."
Trent Mummey does some base running to test out his hamstring.
Auburn will need all its guns this weekend to advance out of the regional and that begins on Friday night. Jacksonville State is a very capable opponent that last season won twice against a Georgia team that advanced deep into the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers only need to look back to the last regional at Plainsman Park to see what can happen as three-seed Ohio State took the title over Auburn. First baseman Hunter Morris said the Tigers are very aware of the challenges facing the team beginning with the Gamecocks.
"You see it every year," Morris said. "Somebody beats somebody who, on paper, is not what they are supposed to be. That team ends up in Omaha or in a Super Regional or whatever the case is. At this point in the season, you can't look past anybody. Every team is here for a reason and, at some point, they played as well as anybody else in the country. Every team has the ability to either win or be beaten. It's our job to come out and play with the focus and concentration to get through game one."
The first pitch for Friday's game is scheduled for 6 p.m. or 50 minutes after the opening game between Clemson and Southern Miss if that falls later that 6. There is no TV for the contest.