After starting the season with one of the tougher schedules in the country with games against non-conference powers such as Clemson and Georgia Tech on the way to a 16-4 record, Auburn begins conference play ranked 10th in the country.
Starting the season 8-0, the best mark since 1992 for a Tennessee team, the Volunteers have lost their last four games and are currently 10-5. After playing a less than challenging schedule to open the season, last weekend the Vols got a taste of what the SEC will have to offer when they welcomed the Miami Hurricanes to Knoxville. Things didn't go well for Coach Rod Delmonico's club as the Hurricanes outscored the Vols 23-7 to leave town with the series sweep. Those numbers don't lessen the concern for Auburn Coach Steve Renfroe though as he's prepared to see one of the most talented Tennessee teams in years when the series opens at 6:30 p.m. Friday.
"We're ready to get going," Renfroe said. "We've had a good preseason run and we like the team we have. We feel we've played a very good schedule and we think it has prepared us well for the rough SEC. I know Rod (Delmonico) has mentioned to some people earlier he felt this team could be as good as his last Omaha (College World Series) team. Obviously, their pitching numbers are outstanding and they have as good a middle--catcher, infielders and center fielder--as anybody in our league. It ought to be a great series and we're looking forward to it."
With a team ERA of just 3.43 so far this season, the Volunteers have been one of the big surprises of the league on the mound. Much of that can be traced to the performance of freshman Luke Hochevar. With a record of 3-1 and an earned run average of 2.25, the right-hander has been one of the top performers in the league to this point and will challenge the Tigers on Saturday. He'll face Auburn junior Colby Paxton, who is 2-1 with a 3.15 ERA in four starts this season. Paxton has allowed 19 hits in 20 innings and has struck out just six batters in that time.
Friday night Auburn will send junior Eric Brandon to the mound against left-hander Ben Riley for the Volunteers. Brandon is 1-1 with a 6.56 ERA this season while Riley is 1-2, but has an earned run average of just 3.81 in five starts this season. Despite his record, Riley is allowing opponents to hit just .216 this season and has pitched at least five innings in all five starts this season. Brandon has been strong since changing his form back to the style that served him well growing up in Tennessee. In his last three starts he has allowed five runs on 14 hits in 13 innings pitched.
On Sunday sophomore Arnold Hughey (3-1, 3.86) is going against junior left-hander Derek Tharpe (2-1, 4.38) for the Volunteers.
At the plate the Volunteers are led by freshman Michael Rivera. Hitting .422 with two home runs and 11 runs batted in this season, he has 15 hits in his last 27 at-bats and has homered in the last two games. His nine multi-hit games lead Tennessee.
Third baseman Nick Crowe continues to swing a hot bat for the Vols with an average of .405 with one home run and nine runs batted in. The power hitter for Tennessee is catcher Javi Herrera. Hitting .360 with two home runs and eight runs batted in, he has three multiple hit games in his last four outings and has the ability to hit the long ball at any time.
As a team the Vols are hitting .322 with nine home runs in 15 games and are scoring an average of 7.9 runs per contest.
For the Tigers the story continues to be true freshman catcher Josh Bell. Hitting .410 with three home runs and 15 runs batted in, he has developed into a dangerous threat behind Bobby Huddleston and Karl Amonite in Auburn's lineup, allowing both to get better pitches. That has resulted in both coming out of mild slumps earlier in the season. Huddleston has his average up to .309 with a team leading six home runs and 21 runs batted in. Amonite is hitting just .254, but has 14 runs batted in with one home run.
A very balanced offensive club, Auburn is hitting .335 as a team with 13 home runs and an impressive 43 doubles while averaging 7.1 runs per game. A telling stat as to just how balanced Auburn is comes when you look at the runs batted in category. All nine regulars for the Tigers have at least 11 runs batted in with number nine hitter Chuck Jeroloman second on the team with 17 RBI. Second baseman Tug Hulett is second on the team in hitting with a .387 average while center fielder Javon Moran is hitting .361 with a team-high nine doubles and nine stolen bases.
Coming out of the bullpen, pitchers Levale Speigner, Cory Dueitt and Steven Register have been a strong trio for the Tigers. Speigner is 4-0 on the year with a 2.91 ERA while Dueitt has been nearly unhittable with a 5-0 record and an ERA of just 1.01. Dueitt hasn't allowed a run in his last 21 2/3 innings, dating back to an outing against Virginia. In his last nine appearances, Register has an earned run average of just 0.54 with 21 strikeouts in 16 innings pitched. He leads the team with eight saves.
Game times for the weekend series are 6:30 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. Saturday and 1:30 p.m. on Sunday. Sunday's game will be telecast live by College Sports Southeast.