Auburn - MSU Baseball Series Preview

Mississippi State and Auburn tangle in a three-game Southeastern Conference series this weekend at Dudy Noble Field.

Weather - Friday should see partly cloudy skies with temperatures in the mid to low 60s. East to southeast winds should be 8 to 9 mph. | Saturday should see temperatures in the low 80s for most of the game. There is a 60% chance of isolated thunderstorms. Winds are expected to be about 11 mph and from the south/southeast. | Sunday should see highs around 70 with a 40% chance for showers. Winds are expected to be around 9 mph and from the north/northwest.

Gametimes (CT) - Friday 6:30 p.m. | Saturday 2 p.m. | Sunday 1:30 p.m.

Coaches - John Pawlowski, who is in his third season as Auburn's head coach, turned around a College of Charleston program that had not won more than 31 games in a season prior to him joining the program. In his nine seasons as its head coach he led the team to an overall record of 338-192 including a 170-86 conference record. His last five teams at CoC won 39 or more games, including a high of 48 in 2005. Three of his teams won the conference championship (2004, 2005, 2007). And his teams played in 3 NCAA postseason Regionals with one advancing to Super Regional play. Overall, his NCAA postseason record is 6-6. In his two seasons at Auburn his team were 74-46 and 31-29 in SEC play. His 2010 team, which was 20-10 in SEC action, won the SEC West and hosted an NCAA Regional. They were 3-2 in the regional but failed to advance to a Super Regional.

John Cohen, who is in his third season at Mississippi State, came to State from Kentucky where he won the overall SEC Championship in 2006. At Kentucky, John Cohen's teams were 175-112 overall and 63-85 in SEC play. In his two seasons at MSU, his teams are 48-62 overall. In five seasons at Kentucky and two at Mississippi State, he has taken two of his teams to NCAA post-season play, although neither team advanced to Super Regional play. His teams have an overall NCAA post-season record of 4-4.

Away/Road Records - Auburn is 4-1 away from home while Mississippi State is 13-4 at home.

Expected Pitching Rotations - Look for Auburn to throw junior LHP Cory Luckie (1-1, 4.50 ERA) Friday, junior RHP Will Irvin (3-0, 3.70 ERA) Saturday and junior RHP Derek Varnadore (3-0, 3.09 ERA) Sunday. Irvin and Varnadore are both junior college transfers.

Although Luckie is the Friday night starter for Auburn, he's been the least effective of the three. And he's been even less effective of late. In his last two starts ( against Arizona State, Arkansas), he gave up 7 runs (all earned) on 18 hits in 8 innings. He lasted 4.1 and 3.2 innings in the two games. In his five starts he's only lasted past the 6th inning once, and that was against New York Tech when he threw seven innings of shutout ball.

Irvin has been the most effective of the three starters this season. Other than his first outing of the year when he gave up 4 runs on 9 hits in 4.1 innings, he hasn't given up more than 2 runs in an outing, and he's only done that twice in the four outings. In his last four appearances, he has given up just 6 runs on 22 hits in 20 innings, which is an ERA of 2.70. He'll normally give Auburn between 5 and 7 good innings. Against Arkansas last weekend, he threw 6 innings, giving up 2 runs on 7 hits and 1 walk. He hasn't thrown in a road game this year, so it'll be interesting to see how he does throwing on the road for the first time. BTW, he played his junior college ball at Itawamba Community College in Fulton, MS.

Varnadore's numbers are the best of the three starters. And he started the season off with a bang, throwing 16 innings in his first two starts, allowing no runs on 5 hits and 3 walks while striking out 17. In his last three starts the competition stepped up a notch (College of Charleston, Arizona State, Arkansas) and his numbers reflect that. In those three starts he has thrown 19 innings and given up 13 runs (12 earned) on 17 hits and 3 walks while striking out 16. Of those three outings, his best was against Arkansas last weekend when he allowed 3 runs on 5 hits and 0 walks while striking out 7 in 6 innings. One thing to note about his last three starts, most of the runs he gave up came late in his outing. He usually gives Auburn 6 very good innings before tiring. Other than a four-run inning in the 4th against Arizona State, he's only given up 3 runs combined in his first six innings in those three games. That's a total of 3 runs in 17 innings. It appears Auburn has tended to go with him until he tires, then take him out for a reliever. And most times the runners he leaves on base score.

Mississippi State will start junior RHP Devin Jones (2-3, 3.03 ERA) Friday night, followed by sophomore RHP Chris Stratton (3-1, 2.38 ERA) Saturday afternoon. Sunday's starter hasn't been announced but I expect it to be either junior LHP Nick Routt (0-0, 0.00 ERA), sophomore RHP Kendall Graveman (2-0, 3.18 ERA) or freshman RHP Evan Mitchell (3-1, 4.50 ERA).

Jones had thrown well up until he faced Vanderbilt last weekend. In his first four outings, he had given up just 4 runs on 16 hits in 26.1 inning but gave up 8 (6 earned) in 3.1 innings of work against Vanderbilt. Of course, Vanderbilt is the second best hitting team in the SEC so the caliber of competition may have had something to do with that. Although he gave up 8 runs and 8 hits he didn't walk a batter in the outing. The outing prior to his Vanderbilt game he only walked one in 7 innings. Of the eight runs he gave up to Vanderbilt, 4 were in the 2nd, 1 in the 3rd and 3 were in the 4th, so you should be able to tell very early in the game if Devin is on or off.

Stratton has had two subpar outings in his last two times out. Against Sacred Heart and Vanderbilt, he gave up 9 runs (8 earned) on 15 hits and 5 walks while striking out 8 in 13.2 innings. In his previous three starts he only gave up 1 run in 20.1 innings while striking out 31. Although he gave up 4 runs in 6.2 innings against Vanderbilt, he really toughed it out and only gave up 2 in his first 6 innings. He finally started tiring and gave up his final two runs in the 7th prior to being taken out of the game. Early season trends are that Stratton is rarely going to give up more than 2 runs through the first 6 innings. The only time he has was against Sacred Heart when he gave up five runs through the first five innings of that game. In his other four outings he has only given up a combined total of 3 runs through the first 6 innings, which spans a total of 24 innings.

Routt, who has thrown just once this season after missing most of last season due to an injury, threw 3.1 innings against Lipscomb last Wednesday. Through the first 3 innings, he retired the side in all three innings, throwing just 40 pitches, while striking out 4. He tired in the 4th and gave up 1 run on 2 hits prior to coming out of the game. Nick was on a 45-pitch count during the game and is expected to possibly increase that to 60 against Auburn if he throws against them. Known as a low-pitch per inning type pitcher with good command, don't be surprised to see Nick throw 4 to 5 innings if Auburn is not hitting the ball well against him.

If Routt can't go Sunday, look for Graveman to be an option. Graveman, who has started three games this season, none in the SEC, usually gives MSU 5 to 7 solid innings, although in his last outing against Eastern Illinois he gave up 3 runs on 7 hits in 5 innings. Although not a strikeout pitcher (12 in 17 innings), Graveman is a ground ball out machine, recording 27 ground ball outs to 6 fly ball outs in his three outings. Auburn is more a fly out type hitting team, so it will be interesting to see how they handle a pitcher like him.

My guess is Mitchell is the third option of the three possible starters for Sunday's game. He pitched well in his first two outings, throwing 9.1 innings while allowing 2 runs on 7 hits. But in his last two appearances he gave up 7 runs on 12 hits in 8.2 innings. When he's on, his fastball will be in the low 90s but when he's off it will be more in the high 80s range and becomes more hittable.

Relief Pitching - Auburn will rely on several pitchers for relief duty including junior RHP Zach Blatt (1-1, 2 S, 4.50 ERA), junior RHP Ethan Wallen (1-2, 4 S, 2.14 ERA), senior LHP Sean Ray (1-1, 1 S, 4.97 ERA), senior RHP Bradley Hendrix (4-0, 3.52 ERA) and possibly sophomore RHP Slade Smith (1-0, 7.59 ERA).

Blatt has been a combination middle reliever/closer for Auburn, closing four games in his seven outings. He has been more effective in the closer role than middle relief. When used in middle relief, he has thrown 2.2 innings, giving up 4 runs (3 earned) on 8 hits and 3 walks. When closing, he has thrown 7.1 innings, giving up 2 runs on 4 hits and 3 walks.

Wallen has been used almost exclusively as a closer, closing 8 of the 9 games he has appeared in. Overall, he's been pretty effective, not dominating but effective. Auburn is not afraid to bring him in in the 6th or 7th inning and let him finish the game. He has actually done that in four of his games. He has also come in in the 8th and finished a couple of his other games. He has given up at least one run in 5 of his 9 appearances but had only given up more than 1 run twice. He was his most effective in his first 5 outings, giving up just 2 runs (1 earned) on 9 hits in 11.1 innings. In his last four appearances he gave up 5 runs (4 earned) on 9 hits and 5 walks in 9.2 innings. Of course, the competition was much better - Arizona State and Arkansas. He averages a little less than a strikeout per inning. Basically, he's a solid closer although not a dominating one.

Ray, who is a middle reliever type, was very good during his first 4 outings, giving up just 1 run (unearned) on 5 hits in 8.1 innings. In his last four, he has given up 7 runs on 6 hits and 5 walks in 4.1 innings.

Hendrix will probably be used in long relief if one of the starters gets into early trouble. He's been an up and down reliever. He'll have a good game, then have a bad game. His first game he gave up 3 runs in 1.2 innings, then gave up 0 runs in 2 innings, then 2 in 1 inning and then 0 in 3. If that trend continues, MSU should score some runs off of him the first game he appears against them.

Smith has been a part-time starter for Auburn and has been used in long relief as well. Last weekend, he was brought in for Luckie when he got hit hard early. He was pretty effective, throwing 2.2 innings, giving up 1 runs on 2 hits while walking no one and striking out 3. It's very possible that he could be brought in early for Luckie again if he has another poor outing.

There are other pitchers that might throw if any of the three games get out of hand but the ones above look to be the primary SEC relievers.

Mississippi State will likely have upwards of 10 pitchers available in relief but I would expect the main guys to be junior RHP Caleb Reed (0-0, 3 S, 1.84 ERA), junior LHP Tim Statz (0-1, 5.40 ERA), sophomore RHP Andrew Busby (1-0, 4.32 ERA), junior LHP Luis Pollorena (2-0, 1.46 ERA), sophomore LHP Chad Girodo (1-0, 6.55 ERA) and freshman RHP Taylor Stark (1-0, 1 S, 0.00 ERA). Others will be freshmen RHP Daryl Norris (0-0, 1 S, 1.35 ERA), RHP Hunter Renfroe (0-0, 0.00 ERA), RHP Victor Diaz (0-0, 5.14 ERA) and LHP C.T. Bradford (0-0, 1 S, 9.82 ERA).

Reed is a guy who can come in as a long reliever or close for the Bulldogs. He's done both this season. Prior to last weekend's outing against Vanderbilt when he gave up 4 runs (3 earned) on 7 hits and 4 walks in 5 innings, he had not given up a run this season in five relief appearances. Against Vandy he gave up 2 quick runs in his first inning of work, then settled down and only gave them 1 run the next four+ innings before being taken out in the 7th after giving up a walk to the leadoff batter. That runner would later scored on a base hit off the next reliever. Although he walked 4 against Vanderbilt, those were his first walks of the season, so don't expect Reed to walk many when he's on the mound.

Statz began the season as a starter but has been moved to the bullpen, where he seems more comfortable. In his two starts this season, he has given up 6 runs (5 earned) on 9 hits in 4.2 innings while in his three relief appearances he has given up 3 runs (1 earned) on 4 hits in 5.1 innings. He pitched well against Vanderbilt last week, giving up 2 unearned runs on 2 hits and 3 walks while striking out 5 in 4.1 innings of work. I look for him to be used in long relief if a starter gets into early trouble.

Busby is a righty that, of late, has been brought in for right-handed matchups. He's normally going to be a strikeout or ground ball out kind of pitcher when he's own. When he's not on, he'll have some command issues and get into three-ball counts and rarely be successful when he does. State's coaches are not afraid to use him in SEC action but will pull him quickly if he gives up a hit or a walk. He pitched in two of the games against Vanderbilt and got an out each appearance but was taken out after walking a batter and giving up a hit.

Pollorena gives MSU another lefty to bring in for lefthanded matchups. He's been very successful so far this season. Other than a two-out outing where he gave up a run, he's been very good for the Dogs. He's a guy who can throw a couple of outs or go three or four innings if needed. In his last outing, which was against Lipscomb last Wednesday, he threw 4.2 innings, giving up just 1 run while striking out 5. In his last three outings, he has thrown 7.2 innings and only given up 1 runs on 6 hits and 3 walks while striking out 7. He did not pitch against Vanderbilt last weekend, so he hasn't gone against SEC hitters yet.

Girodo was being counted on early in the season for SEC action but didn't have much luck in his first few appearances of the season, giving up 8 runs on 13 hits and 7 walks in 10 innings. But in his last outing, which was against Vanderbilt last weekend, he threw a one-hit, no-walk, no-run inning. I could see him being used in a lefty matchup type situation for a couple of outs or an inning.

It appears that Stark is being groomed for the co-closer role this season. Caleb Reed is the other closer. His first appearance of the season was against Lamar, a game MSU had a double digit lead when he came in. He threw 1 inning, allowing no runs or hits and one walk while also striking out one. His next outing was against Iowa, who at the time he came in had a 7-3 lead. MSU wound up losing the game 7-6 but Taylor threw well, allowing 0 runs on 1 hit and no walks while striking out 4 in his 2 innings of work. That earned him another outing against Sacred Heart. He came in to throw the 8th inning with the score tied 5-5 and gave up no runs, hits or walks while striking out 1 in his 1 inning of work. In his last outing, which was last Sunday against Vanderbilt, he threw 1.2 innings to close out a come-from-behind victory by the Bulldogs. When he came in, the score was 9-8 with the Bulldogs leading. He came in in the 8th with a man on first and no outs and retired the next two batters without giving up a run. Then, in the 9th he retired the side, earning the save, his 1st of the season.

As for the other four freshmen I listed above, I could see any one of them coming in and throwing anywhere from an out to an inning. Renfroe, Diaz and Bradford all pitched against Vanderbilt last weekend. Diaz recorded one out while Renfroe threw a inning. Neither was touched for a run, hit or walk. Bradford started the Sunday game and only lasted an inning, giving up 4 runs. He will be used exclusively in relief if he is used against Auburn.

Who's Hot at the Plate and Who's Not in the Last 5 Games - Auburn is led at the plate by junior Casey McElroy who is hitting .500 (10-for-20, 6 RBI), followed by senior Tony Caldwell at .385 (5-for-13, 3 RBI), junior Creede Simpson at .333 (6-for-18, 3 RBI) and junior Brooks Beisner at .300 (3-for-10, 1 RBI.

Senior Kevin Patterson is hitting .263 (5-for-19, 9 RBI), senior Justin Hargett is hitting .261 (6-for-23, 2 RBI), senior Wes Gilmer at .250 (5-for-20, 1 RBI), junior Dan Gamache at .222 (4-for-18, 2 RBI) and senior Justin Fradejas at .200 (4-for-20, 0 RBI).

Mississippi State is led at the plate by senior Jarrod Parks who is hitting .467 (7-for-15, 4 RBI) in the last five games followed by senior Jaron Shepherd who is hitting .444 (4-for-9, 1 RBI). Freshman Daryl Norris is hitting .333 (6-for-18, 6 RBI), while senior Cody Freeman is also hitting .333 (5-for-15, 5 RBI).

Others include senior Ryan Collins at .278 (5-for-18, 1 RBI), senior Nick Vickerson also at .278 (5-for-18, 1 RBI, 17 of 17 in stolen base attempts), freshman C.T. Bradford at .263 (5-for-19, 5 RBI), senior Wes Thigpen at .167 (2-for-12, 1 RBI), sophomore Sam Frost at .091 (1-for-11, 0 RBI) and senior Jonathan Ogden at .056 (1-for-18, 3 RBI). In limited action, freshman Taylor Stark is hitting.250 (1-for-4, 1 RBI) and junior Brent Brownlee is hitting .000 (0-for-5, 0 RBI).

How Auburn and MSU Match Up
Auburn Category Mississippi State
14-7 (2-1 SEC) Record 15-6 (1-2 SEC)
.312 Batting Average .290
133 (6.3 pg) Runs 144 (6.9 pg)
13 Home Runs 9
.396 OB % .411
18-34 Stolen Bases-Attempts 37-46
87 (4.1 pg) Walks 113 (5.4 pg)
155 (7.4 pg) Strikeouts 126 (6.0 pg)
181 (8.6 pg) LOB 190 (9.0 pg)
4.27 Team ERA 3.32
13 (0.62 pg) Unearned Runs Allowed 8 (0.38 pg)
8 Saves 6
66 (3.1 pg) Walks 64 (3.0 pg)
157 (7.5 pg) Strikeouts 177 (8.4 pg)
.292 Batting Average Against .238
.968 Fielding % .977

Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the website, the source for Mississippi State sports on the sports network. You can contact him by emailing

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