PREVIEW: Auburn comes to Carolina

Despite multiple injuries and line-up shifts South Carolina has managed to win every SEC series of the season so far. After taking two-of-three from its first SEC West opponent at Mississippi State last weekend, South Carolina welcomes another West opponent in Auburn for a three-game set at Carolina Stadium this weekend.

Auburn Tigers

Record:22-18; Home: 13-12; Away: 6-6; Neutral: 3-0; SEC: 9-9.




The Auburn Tigers are coming to town… led by head coach John Powlowski. Powlowski is no stranger to Gamecock baseball or Gamecock fans, as his presence has been long-term against our program. Powlowski got his start as a player in the Palmetto State by playing for Coach Bill Wilhelm in 1983. He played at Clemson until 1985 and was drafted by the Chicago White Sox organization ('86-'91); played with the Anaheim Angels ('91-'92) and with the Baltimore Orioles ('92).

He returned to Clemson after the '92 season with Baltimore to earn his degree and to start his coaching career in '93. He was brought into Tiger organization as an Assistant Coach in 1994, during Coach Leggett's inaugural season as Skipper of the Tigers. He was Coach Leggett's pitching coach and recruiting coordinator from '94-'98; he made a lateral move to become an Asst. Coach under Coach Pat Murphy at Arizona State University ('99).

He was tabbed the headman at the College of Charleston in late Summer, 1999. He did well with a very good situation at Charleston for 9 years, going 338-192-1 (.637 WP) with the Cougars. After amassing successes in the low-country, he left Charleston for The Plains in post-season 2008 to get started on the Auburn 2009 season. His presence was immediately felt in my area as he recruited heavily from the Atlanta area; everyone at the local Cobb County high schools were anxious to hear what his story was and he recruited this area well, taking a few of UGa's slated players.

In his two years as Auburn's head coach, his overall record is 74-46 (.617 WP); Auburn's 43 wins in 2010 was the seventh best in the program's history. A lot of those wins could be attributed to their offensive prowess as his 2010 batting line-up set school records for batting average (.348), home runs (131) and slugging percentage (.591)… the latter two lead the nation. During 2010, their number of hits (816), runs (584) and their 9.1 runs/game were within the nation's top-ten for offensive prowess.

Enter the 2011 season; gone are Hunter Morris, Brian Fletcher and Trent Mummy, who along with Kevin Patterson (on the 2011 roster) made up one of the most potent batting lineups in the SEC last year. Also gone are the aluminum bats that those big hitters wielded, now replaced with BBCOR bats. Kevin Patterson was hitting @ .344 when we saw him in 2010; today, he is hitting .281, usually in the 7th or 8th spot for Auburn. What a difference a year, new teammates and a newer understanding of the offensive game makes, doesn't it?

The Auburn offensive production is actually pretty high within the SEC this year, they rank considerably better in certain offensive categories than our own Gamecocks. Their team batting average is .293, the third best in the SEC (SEC games only) behind Florida (.325) and Vanderbilt (.323). Our team batting average is sixth in the conference (.269). They have two of the top three conference RBI hitters (against SEC pitching) in Casey McElroy (24) and Tony Caldwell (20), Casey McElroy is fifth in the conference for total hits against SEC pitching with 27 hits. They are third in on-base percentage against SEC pitching with a team on-base percentage of .374; fourth in slugging percentage with a .425 slugging percentage against SEC opponents.

All of this boils down to one thing… Auburn can still hit the ball around the park well; not as far as they did before, but as we know those duck snorts do add up. That is where they can make a difference this year. They are bunting to get on base (a concept quite foreign to their hitters last year), they have become a better team going after the first pitch and making contact, they have done well getting their lead-off on per inning and bringing him around to score.

They average 6.4 runs/SEC game thus far this season to their (competitive SEC teams played) opponent's 7 runs/game…two games against Vanderbilt and one game against Mississippi State were lopsided wins of great proportion against the Tigers. If you take those three games out of the equation, their SEC opponent's score an average of 5.67 runs/game.

Powlowski will rotate and move players as needed within the batting order; there are a couple of guys that are "stationary" (have their continued place in the batting order) and they are: Casey McElroy batting 3rd, Dan Gamache batting 4th or 5th – most recently 5th, Tony Caldwell 4th or 5th (opposite Gamache), Kevin Patterson batting 7th, Creede Simpson batting 8th. Recent rotation of Justin Fradejas has him leading off the past two games (against Ole Miss), a position within the batting order that he started with early in the SEC season (against Vandy the first two games of the series). Most often, Justin was hitting #2 in the line-up with Bobby Andrews leading off.

Here is Auburn's batting order, based off of their most recent match-up against Ole Miss last weekend in the Plains. I have Bobby Andrews leading off due to his high batting average and recent success in getting hits and RBIs, with minimal strike-outs over the past two SEC series (against LSU and Ole Miss).

40, Bobby Andrews LF,CF (L/R, Fr.); .396BA, 53AB, 9r, 21h, 6RBI, 11k (.467 obp).

20, Justin Fradejas RF (R/R, Sr.); .306BA, 144AB, 25r, 44h, 2HR, 10RBI, 14w, 30k (.377 obp).

23, Casey McElory SS (L/R, Jr.); .349BA, 166AB, 34r, 58h, 6HR, 43RBI, 15w, 23k (.407 obp).

14, Tony Caldwell C (R/R, Sr.); .302BA, 129AB, 27r, 39h, 6HR, 28RBI, 18w, 24k (.408 obp).

10, Dan Gamache DH/3B (L/R, Jr.); .329BA, 146AB, 31r, 48h, 4HR, 26RBI, 25w, 19k (.453 obp).

29, Brooks Beisner LF/RF/DH (R/R, Tr. Jr.); .302BA, 53AB, 12r, 16h, 2HR, 9RBI, 3w, 14k (.345 obp).

21, Kevin Patterson 1B (L/R, Sr.); .291BA, 134AB, 18r, 39h, 7HR, 34RBI, 17w, 37k (.374 obp).

5, Creede Simpson CF (R/R, Jr.); .265BA, 132AB, 22r, 35h, 1HR, 11RBI, 13w, 27k (.336 obp).

12, Zack Alvord, 2B/SS (R/R, Fr.); .230BA, 61AB, 4r, 14h, 1HR, 7RBI, 5w, 21k (.299 obp).

11, Wes Gilmer 3B/1B/DH (S/R, Sr.); .312BA, 125AB, 20r, 39h, 22RBI, 11w, 24k (.381 obp).

2, Justin Hargett 2B (L/R, Sr.); .304BA, 135AB, 20r, 41h, 19RBI, 8w, 32k (.345 obp).

17, Cullen Wacker LF/DH (L/R, So.); .304BA, 69AB, 11r, 21h, 11RBI, 13w, 8k (.432 obp).

34, Blake Austin C (R/R, Fr.); .333BA, 18AB, 5r, 6h, 1RBI, 1w, 3k (.429 obp).

7, Jay Gonzalez CF (L/L, Fr.); .167BA, 30AB, 8r, 5h, 2RBI, 4w, 13k (.265 obp).

Total:

Auburn (team) Batting Average: .303
Opponent (team) Batting Average: .295
Auburn (team) On Base Percentage: .385
Opponent (team) On Base Percentage: .371

Pitching… This is where we have a distinct advantage on the Tigers. A quick overview of their record against similar staffs, Vanderbilt's specifically, will give an indication as to what we can expect our staff to give their hitters this weekend. South Carolina currently owns the best Earned Run Average amongst all pitching staffs within the conference and against all (thus far) of the SEC competition with a team ERA of 2.07.

Vanderbilt's team ERA comes in 3rd at 2.77 against SEC competition; Vandy's pitching staff shut down Auburn's bats and swept them in Nashville. The cumulative score for the three games was 28-10, in Vanderbilt's favor. My point is if we can hold Auburn to an average of 3.34 runs per game, we should be able to beat them… even with the changes that have occurred within our batting order… namely the exclusion of JBJ, Adam Matthews and Evan Marzilli It is a distinct advantage, playing on your home field ; it gives a team, especially Carolina, an edge over the better teams this year. Right now, in our park and with the line-up we have (especially pitching), we have the edge.

If you look at Auburn's pitching compared to other SEC pitching staffs (this season against SEC competition), Auburn's team ERA is the highest against SEC hitting at 5.94. Their opponent's on-base average against SEC competition is .303 OBA; the average amongst all SEC schools is .275, so Auburn struggles keeping SEC teams off of bases. They have also allowed the most earned runs in the conference at 106 earned runs; Carolina compares at 37 earned runs/season against SEC competition).

To make matters worse, if they are allowing hits to accumulate and matriculate into runs, their defense is doing little to stop the bleeding. South Carolina ranks #1 within the conference for fielding percentage (.981) with Auburn coming in at #10 (actually tied with Kentucky and Ole Miss at the bottom) at a .961 fielding percentage. They lead us in just about every offensive statistic within the SEC… batting averages, slugging percentages, on base percentages, runs scored, hits and RBIs. But the truth to this conference and to college baseball is that pitching wins.

Auburn pitchers may not blow away batters with high velocity fastballs or well placed off-speed pitches. Their goal is, according to John Powlowskv, for his starters to give the team a chance to hang in and allow the defense to step up with solid play in the field and give their offense a chance to score runs. Problem is if they are behind by the sixth inning their chance of winning are diminished significantly…2-12 under that scenario and it only gets worse if they are behind in later innings.

Here is what to expect from their staff this weekend, starting with their probable Friday starter, RHP and Transfer Junior Derek Varnadore. Varnadore will work off of his low 90's fastball to set up other pitches, namely a changeup and slider. Key to his best performances this season was early control/command of his fastball. Without it, Varnadore can struggle with the other two pitches. He will average +80 pitches/outing and will typically go six innings/outing; his WHIP (Walks+Hits/Innings Pitched) is 1.35 (WHIP = 1. is very good; Roth's WHIP is .98, the best in the SEC).

This is due to some soreness experienced in his arm after he pitched against Kentucky in Lexington (4/09); they rested Varnadore's arm the weekend before Ole Miss, during the LSU series and he is cleared to pitch against Carolina. Varnadore will use a deceptive delivery to hide in-coming pitches, by stepping across his body and having a "hitch" in his wrist and hand toward the end of his delivery. It is a very deceptive motion and makes his fastball hard to pick up/tough to hit.

Zack Blatt (RHP) was Auburn's Saturday starter last weekend against Ole Miss; He was the Friday starter against LSU, during Varnadore's hiatus versus LSU. For the past two SEC series, Blatt has been a starter in a win against LSU and a loss against Ole Miss. He possesses a good fastball, but is known for working opposing batters for fielded outs. His starting role against LSU on a Friday evening (4/15) resulted in 107 pitches thrown in a win for Auburn. It also resulted in his limited use the following weekend against Ole Miss as he developed a nasty blister on his pitching hand finger.

Blatt was only able to go 3 innings on 61 pitches thrown, facing 7 batters and giving up 6 runs on 7 hits. Blatt's start is anyone's guess; it could be on Saturday or on Sunday. His WHIP is pretty high for a starter in the SEC at 1.8. If he should start for Auburn, it will be key for us to keep him from getting to a fast start, getting to their bullpen as quickly as we can.

Their Sunday starter has been RHP Jan Luke Jacobs and has been their Sunday guy for three Sunday starts against Kentucky, LSU and Ole Miss. He started against Vanderbilt for the Saturday match-up. Jacobs is at his best when he has command of his fastball, placing it on the outside half of the plate, or inside on right-handed hitters. His WHIP is one of the best on the team at 1.26, which is good. He has the capability to go for long outings if he is on; he threw 106 pitches against Kentucky on a Sunday win.

Dillon Ortmann (RHP) will come in as their closer for weekend duties and has two saves against SEC weekend competition. He has good sink on his fastball and is very capable of throwing a quality breaking ball. He has an effective change-up to use with his fastball and he can hit the strike zone consistently.

Ethan Wallen (RHP) has collected 5 saves as a closer (in weekday games) and is used on the weekends as an early relief pitcher… typically the 2nd or 3rd man called to relieve a pitcher. Wallen throws with strength from a low side-arm slot. He is tough to hit because his pitches come in low from the mound… his pitches have good deceptive speed, movement and possess good velocity.

Corey Luckie (LHP) is a bit of an anomaly to me. He was their Friday night starter last year when we met them on the Plains. He was a good three-pitch pitcher (fastball, curve and change up). He spent all of '09 on injured reserve, rehabbing from Tommy John surgery the previous year ('08). He was Auburn's #1 starter last year, starting in 9 SEC games. Most recently, he started against LSU (with Varnadore out) this year and threw 123 pitches.

He won't hit speeds in excess of 90, but will pitch sub 90's with very good control and placement. He struggles with talented left- handed hitters and teams heavy with left handed batters. He has been used primarily for early relief in recent games, but that start may have him under consideration for a starting role in Columbia.

Andrew Morris, RHP and a Transfer Junior from Gulf Coast C.C., was considered one of the premiere JuCo pitchers in the country (2010) . He was a 16th round draft pick of the Brewers and chosen Panhandle Pitcher of the Year in his freshman season (2009). Morris is a lanky pitcher throwing from a ¾ arm slot with action on the back side of his pitch. Best known for his big, breaking 12- 7 curve ball. His change up had good drop and resembled a splitter – used effectively as a second pitch (his out pitch). His pitches have been inconsistent and without good location in recent relief. He was Auburn's Friday starter in their first two SEC games, but didn't develop his consistency to maintain his starting role on the Auburn staff.

Auburn's pitching staff, their statistics and complete numbers are below. All of the pitchers listed have seen action in SEC weekend play:

13, Derek Varnadore RHP (R/R, Tr. Jr.); 3.67ERA, 4-1, 33.1IP, 32h, 16r(13e), 13w, 29k (.216 oba).

49, Zack Blatt RHP (R/R, JR.); 7.80ERA, 2-3, 2SV, 30.IP, 38h, 29r(26e), 16w, 26k (.342 oba).

19, Jon Luke Jacobs RHP (R/R, Jr.); 3.90ERA, 1-3, 30.IP, 26h, 16r(13e), 12w, 31k (.230 oba).

26, Dillon Ortmann RHP (R/R, Fr.); 4.15ERA, 0-0, 3SV, 21.2IP, 21h, 12r(10e), 6w, 19k (.244 oba).

42, Ethan Wallen RHP, (R/R, Jr.); 3.51ERA, 4-3, 5SV, 33.1IP, 32h, 16r(13e), 13w, 29k (.260 oba).

25, Corey Luckie LHP (R/L, Jr.); 4.60ERA, 1-1, 1SV, 43.IP, 62h, 22r(22e), 10w, 48k (.352 oba).

16, Slade Smith RHP (R/R, So.); 6.92ERA, 2-0, 39.IP, 60h, 34r(30e), 14w, 16k (.368 oba).

31, Bradley Hendrix RHP (R/R, Sr.); 3.18ERA, 2-1, 22.2IP, 22h, 10r(8e), 13w, 14k (.272 oba).

6, Andrew Morris RHP, (R/R, Tr. Jr.); 7.33ERA, 1-3, 27.IP, 40h, 23r(22e), 10w, 20k (.333 oba).

22, Sean Ray LHP (L/L, Sr.); 5.24ERA, 2-1, 1SV, 22.1IP, 22h, 16r(13e), 14w, 15k (.259 oba).

Total:

Auburn (team) Earned Run Average: 4.99
Opponent (team) earned Run Average: 5.82
Auburn (team) Opponent Batting Average: .295
Opponent's (team) Opponent Batting Average: .303

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