Preview: Gamecocks travel to the Plains

Fresh off a three-game sweep of Tennessee and a thrilling extra-inning win over Georgia Southern the South Carolina Gamecocks take their 11-game win streak to the plains for a three-game SEC series with the red-hot Auburn Tigers, who are in sole possession of first place in the Western Division of the SEC for the first time since being 7-2 in the 1999 season.

Auburn (16-5, 3-0 in SEC play).

Best wins: Sweep of UGa last weekend; win over Alabama on 3/24.
Ugliest losses: Arizona State's sweep over the Tigers in Tempe, Az.; Loss to S.E. Missouri to open their season.

When John Powlowski took over the reins of the Auburn Baseball program in 2008, he set a goal for the 2009 baseball team... Get back to the SEC Tournament. They fell two games short of making the tournament in '09 and stretched their record of non-attendance in Hoover to 7 years. You may recall that Auburn was a team that reached the NCAA Regionals in '05 without attending the Hoover Tournament.

This year, they are an experienced team and recruited some junior college recruits that contribute heavily to their overall success. They plan on making the Hoover Tournament as their No. 1 goal. Their goals are set even higher... to go to Omaha. Their last visit to the College World Series was in 1997... 13 years ago. To put that note in perspective, 1997 was the year Coach Tanner became South Carolina's skipper. Coach Powlowski wants to get them back and has a team that can compete with the best in the SEC.

Powlowski has ties to the Palmetto State... graduate of Clemson University in 1996, he spent a few years in the pros. When the college game beckoned for his return, he was a Coach Leggett assistant, then moved to assist Coach Pat Murphy at Arizona State. His head coaching opportunity came when the College of Charleston hired him and he experienced success as the skipper there. When Auburn looked for a coach to take their program back to the level it had been in the mid-1990's, they hired John Powlowski.

Powlowski's immediate goal when he took over as skipper was to get this Auburn team back to the SEC Tournament in Hoover in '09; the team fell two games short of doing that. However, the goal has been re-established and they appear to be on track to make it to Hoover in '10. They have not been to the Tournament in Hoover for seven years (since '03). His additional goal is to re-establish Auburn baseball back to the powerhouse that it was in the mid-90s. The last time Auburn made it to Omaha was in '97; the same year Coach Tanner took over as skipper of the Gamecocks.

Presently, they compare well to other teams in the SEC. As of today, they are #1 in the SEC West. they lead all SEC teams in Team Batting Average with a .352 BA; South Carolina comes in at #7 with a team average of .303 . Auburn ranks #10 in Team ERA with a 4.69 ERA; the Gamecocks rank #4 with a team ERA of 3.47 . South Carolina possesses a better Team Fielding percentage (ranked #6) of .971; Auburn currently ranks #12 in fielding among all SEC teams with a .949 fielding average. In fact, the worst fielding offenders for Auburn occurs within their infield: Shortstop (8 Es), 3B (8 Es), Catcher (6 Es), 2B & 1B (3 Es each). Shots through the gap will hopefully keep them busy.

Hunter Morris currently leads all SEC hitters with 39 hits. Whit Merrifield and Auburn's Creede Simpson are currently tied for runs scored with 28. Hunter Morris and Brian Fletcher are currently #2 and #3 in the SEC with RBI. In fact, most of the categories that presently deal with offensive production have an Auburn player listed. It is the tale of two teams, one with offensive prowess; the other with good pitching/fielding that can limit an opponent's hitting. This will certainly be the case on the Plains this weekend. If you consider coaching (exempt of statistical data), you have to give Coach Tanner and our staff the edge... five wins over Powlowski while he was skipper at The College of Charleston... including a verbal brawl!

Here is their starting line-up with position played and batting averages:

Justin Hargett (lead off hitter): L-R, Jr. playing 2B; .342 BA.
Creede Simpson (hitting 2nd): R-R, Tr. Sr. playing CF; .333 BA.
Hunter Morris (3rd): L-R, Jr. playing 1B; .415 BA.
Brian Fletcher (4th): R-R, Jr. hitting DH; .400 BA.
Casey McElroy (5th): L-R, So. playing SS; .364 BA.
Tony Caldwell (6th): R-R, Jr. playing RF; .377 BA.
Dan Gamache (7th): L-R, So. playing 3B; .356 BA.
Justin Bryant (8th): R-R, Tr. Jr. playing LF; .290 BA.
Ryan Jenkins (9th): R-R, Sr. playing Catcher; .250 BA.

In rotation:

Wes Gilmer (PH): S-R, Jr. substituting at 1B/2B; .313 BA.
Caleb Owen (PH): R-R, So. sub. at Catcher; .500 BA.
Justin Fradejas (PR): R-R, Tr. Jr. sub. at RF/LF; .357 BA.
Kevin Patterson (PR) L-R, Jr. sub. at DH; .344 BA.

Looking at their batting averages gives an indication of what this team can do; a closer look at their production numbers will reveal how opposing teams can beat them. Most of their opposition will win when they have the lead between 4 through 8 innings of play; after 6 innings of play, Auburn's record is 15-0 with a lead after six. If they are trailing after 6 innings of play, their record is 1-5. If opposing pitchers allow +2 home runs in a game, their record is 9-2. For opponents scoring in the first inning, Auburn's record is 7-4. If the opposing team is heald to 0 home runs, Auburn's record is 8-1. If the opposing team can muster one home run, Auburn's record is 6-0 against them. But, if an opposing team can hit +2 home runs against Auburn pitching, Auburn's record is 2-4. Auburn hitters are 7-0 against left handed pitchers, but are 9-5 against right handed pitchers.

If an opponent scores 0-2 runs in a game, Auburn's record against them is 3-0. If an opponent scores 3-5 runs in a game, Auburn's record against them is 8-0. If an opponent scores 6-9 runs in a game, Auburns record is 5-2. Finally, if an opponent scores +10 runs against them, Auburn's record is 0-3. This is precisely what Arizona State did against Auburn to sweep them... winning their games 9-8 (Friday), 16-7 (Saturday) and 8-3 (Sunday). ASU's run production was (on average 11 runs/game) good enough to beat them, but ASU's pitching kept their hitters at bay (Auburn averaged 6 runs/game, with the highest Auburn run production in a game at 8 runs).

We will have to produce runs and not leave base runners on base to beat Auburn. As ASU did, 11 runs/game will provide positive results in the win column against them. Most importantly, our pitching will have to limit their hitters to minimal run production. Tough order to fill, but not impossible... some guys in the 4-8 slot will have to produce. I imagine we will see some movement within our batting order to get run production; somehow using Thomas and switching a few others in the batting order (Haney at 8th, Wingo at 9th... for example) to get some run production. High on-base percentage with a timely big hit (aka: "gorilla ball") is a good way to obtain this result; so is solid pitching, good defense... keeping the ball in the yard.

Let's take a look at Auburn's pitching. I mentioned in a post on the Golden Spur that Auburn has made some positive improvements in their pitching this year. After reviewing their numbers, it is fact that they have done just that. Let's start wit h what we know. We know, according to SECsports.com, that they will start their Friday and Saturday starters for our series... Cory Luckie (Friday) and JuCo transfer Cole Nelson. As for now, their Sunday starter is listed as TBA on the site. Typically, their Sunday guy is Grant Dayton; Dayton threw 112 pitches in 7 innings against UGa. He dominated them. I would be surprised to see someone else pitch in his place, but they have some talent in their bullpen to call on.

Here's the skinny on Auburn's weekend starters/relievers:

Cory Luckie. LHP (R-L, Med. Red So.) 5.40 ERA; Friday starter. Started @ 14 games in '08, but suffered a torn UCL later in the season and had Tommy John surgery later in the '08 season. He sat out all of '09 recouping from surgery. His rehab has gone exceptionally well and has not lost any of his accuracy. He threw 100 pitches in 7.0 innings against UGA on Friday night. Alot of offspeed pitches with low velocity... but has excellent control of his pitches, which features a fastball (hi 80s low 90s), nice curveball and a knee-buckling change-up pitch. He looked really good against UGa when I saw him Friday; never would've suspected that he was coming off of major surgery, given the number of pitches he threw against the Bulldogs and the location of the pitches he threw.

Cole Nelson. LHP (L-L, Tr. Jr.) 3.67 ERA; Saturday starter. A Junior College lefty that Powlowski signed to develop depth in his starting rotation and bullpen for '10. Nelson will use his fastball early on and will use an effective slider in later innings, around the 2 or 3rd inning. His use of the slider he possesses depends upon how well his fastball is working on a batting order in the first few innings. He can be very effective registering K's if batters allow him to get in a groove. Batters have to challenge him early on, because he gets tougher in later innings... if given the chance.

Grant Dayton*. LHP (L-L, Jr.) 5.56 ERA; Was used as a Sunday starter against UGa. *Not listed as probable Sunday starter for our series with Auburn. He threw 112 pitches in 7.0 innings. Throws a variety of pitches; fastball, curve along with other breaking pitches and a slider. Allowed 3 runs and had three strike outs against UGa in 7 innings.

Austin Hubbard. RHP (R-R, Sr.) 2.13 ERA; Used as their stopper and is very effective in that role. Pitched 3.1 innings against UGa on Sunday (1R, 6 SO); came in as closer for Auburn in the Alabama game (3/24) pitched 2.0 innings (1 R, 5 SO) to shut the Tide down. Hubbard has been named to the NCBWA Stopper of the YEar award list for 2010. He led the team in strike outs last year with 56K's and in appearances made (25 appearances).

Michael Hurst. RHP (R-R, Sr.) 2.63 ERA; Relief pitcher used in middle innings. A side-winder, he pitched in Game #2 at Athens, threw 32 pitches in 2.0 innings (1R, 3 SO). He pitched middle relief in the Alabama game, going 3.1 innings with 51 pitches (1R, 1 SO). Hurst was named the Most Valuable Player against Bama that night for his middle relief efforts. When he came in, Auburn was clinging to a 5-4 lead with two Bama runners on base and two already in with two outs. Hurst induced the out and Auburn eventually won the game, 8-6. In his post game statements, Powlowski stated "Hurst came in in middle relief and did an outstanding job for us. Add in Austin Hubbard (closer) and when you have to step up and make big pitches, I thought these guys did a really good job for us."

Sean Ray. LHP (L-L, Jr.) 1.80 ERA; Relief pitcher used in late inning situations. He came in for game #3 at Athens, threw 27 pitches in the final 2.0 innings (0R, 1 SO).

Slade Smith. RHP (R-R, Fr.) 3.09 ERA; Started the game against the Crimson Tide (3/24). Pitched 3.2 innings, threw 77 pitches (4R, 6 SO). A young, talented weekday starter for the Tigers.

Dexter Price. RHP (R-R, So.) 3.00 ERA; Has thrown 181 pitches for Auburn tallying 11 SO, 7R (6ER), 3-0 record. Started against LSU last year in their Sunday game and was primarily used as a weekday starter with early season relief duties.

John Luke Jacobs. RHP (R-R, So.) 7.41 ERA; Went 3-4 with a 5.74 ERA in 13 appearances... all starts in '09. Went 4 2/3 innings in Columbia in Auburn's only win against the Yardcocks last year. He currently has pitched 17 innings in 4 appearances, tallying 14 SO, 17R (14 ER) in 22.2 innings pitched. Current record is 0-2 in 4 games as a starter.

The Gamecocks have their work cut out for them this weekend. Auburn's current winning streak is at 7 games. Their fan support has been good as they average 2,195 fans/home game.

I suspect with their recent success with wins over UGA and Bama, the attendance numbers will increase and it will be loud. The Gamecocks will have to play their best for this series as this could be the most prolific hitting team they have faced so far this year (possibly on par with Clemson). We will have to play our best to certainly win one game; logic tells me that Auburn will win one at home. The third game could be a toss-up.

Winning 2 out of 3 is a possibility, but losing 2 out of 3 could easily happen in this type of road game early in the year. The latter is likely to happen if a few of our hitters don't show up... we need Ebert and Matthews to contribute in a big way. Everyone else in our batting order either needs to hold-serve with production or increase it. Haney looked very good against Ga. Southern and one can only hoe that trend continues.

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