Editor's Note: We are pleased to welcome Kevin Ives of Plainsman Parking Lot to our team this baseball season. He runs the best Auburn baseball site on the internet. There's nobody more knowledgeable about college baseball than Kevin. He's agreed to join us each Friday to give a weekend preview of Auburn's upcoming series. Today he takes a look at the weekend series with South Carolina. There's also plenty more coverage about the series on his site. Please bookmark AUPPL and visit it regularly throughout the season. Welcome to Track'em Tigers Kevin!
If you thought last week's series against Georgia was big, you haven't seen anything, yet. Last week it was all about testing the waters for Auburn. Are we back? Is Hoover a real possibility? Here, let's stick our toe into the shallow end (a young and down UGA team) a bit to see. This weekend, the Tigers are cannon-balling butt first into the deep end. That's what the Carolina series looks like to me. Auburn has their legs under us and is riding a 7 game winning streak. USC sees that 7 game winning streak, and raises Auburn the Gamecocks 11 game winning streak they ride, coming into tonight 6:30 game at Plainsman Park. Auburn has confidence after sweeping UGA. Carolina has confidence after sweeping Tennessee (including a one-hitter on Sunday). I hate putting so much emphasis on early season series, but for Auburn, just like last week, this is another huge test. This is a South Carolina team that has beaten Auburn each of the last 10 series. In fact, if it wasn't for last year's 6-4 win, Auburn would be coming into tonight having lost 8 straight to the Cocks. This is Auburn's next test, and here's what to look for:
HOT HITTING HUNTER- Hunter Morris is raking right now. He's batting .415 (3rd in the SEC), .777 Slugging % (2nd), has 39 hits (1st), 32 RBI (2nd), 8 HR (1st) and 73 total bases (1st). Morris is finally showing that his freshman campaign wasn't a fluke. He's leaner, he's meaner, and he is the lynchpin to our offensive attack. Why? Basically it boils down to his position in the batting order, and excellent strategy by Coach John Pawlowski. Hunter normally bats 3rd. Normally, you'd want a huge power hitting guy like Hunter to bat cleanup. However, slotting him third means Creede Simpson (who bats 2nd) will get more hittable pitches. Creede's responded well (hitting .333 and leading the SEC in runs scored). Hunter is batting at a safe spot and guys can't really pitch around him, because batting cleanup (4th) is Brian Fletcher who's only hitting .400 with 8 HRs as well. The top of our lineup (1-5) has been a wrecking crew all season, and it only gets better because:
THE FLYING FRADEJAS- Justin Fradejas, a junior college guy out of Pensacola looks to be finally healthy and back to 100%. He started Auburn's opener and missed extended time after injuring his hand in the same game. Now he's back and he's heating up. Fradejas has started the last 2 games and in his return has already shown the wheels that make him such a dangerous weapon at lead-off. If you had a chance to catch the Max Capital City Classic on Wednesday then you saw it yourself. It's not every day that a coach would feel confident having the first guy up bunting, but with Justin, it's almost unfair. With his speed and a couple more games, Auburn should finally have their true lead off man.
LINEUP SHUFFLE- With Fradejas coming back, the lineup has had to be tweaked a little bit. This weekend, it will all depend on the health of Brian Fletcher. Fletch has been nursing a hamstring injury he got against UGA last weekend. If he's not 100% then he'll probably slot in the DH. That leaves the outfield being Tony Caldwell, Creede Simpson, and Justin Fradejas. The odd man out of that equation is Justin Bryant. Bryant could play 3B which would bump Dan Gamache out of the lineup. Honestly, Bryant could play anywhere, and he has this season: JB has played 2B, SS, 3B, OF and pitched all in this young season. Where he plays this weekend is something to watch.
COLE IN CONTROL- Cole Nelson has been a revelation. He's settled in nicely as the de-facto Ace of the Auburn staff. However, watching him over the past 3 games, I've noticed something that's troublesome. His control has been lacking. Chalk it up to two tough round environments, but he does lead the Tigers in Walks (11), Wild Pitches (3), and Hit Batters (3). Hopefully being at home, and comfortable, will help his situation.
LUCKIE STRIKES- Cory Luckie gets the nod tonight, making his second Friday start. If he repeats his performance against UGA then Auburn is in good shape. For Cory, it's all about his control. If he can hit his spots, he can be unhittable. If his off-speed stuff (including his pseudo-sinker) is biting, then that's even better. He's had a problem with giving up HRs, but Carolina doesn't come in as a very powerful club, the rank around the middle of the pack in the SEC in HRs. Even better for Cory, Carolina doesn't hit as well against LHP.
ICE WATER AUSTIN- Austin Hubbard, Auburn's closer, has been spot on lately, with two huge saves against UGA and against Alabama. He leads the team with 3 Saves, but Coach Pawlowski (CJP) has shown that he isn't afraid to play the matchups. Just because it's a save situation, doesn't mean we'll see Austin, 3 other Tigers also have saves on the year.
BRAVO BULLPEN- As hot as our hitting has been, our bullpen has been Auburn's saving grace over the past few games, and that needs to continue. Auburn should come in well rested, having used only a handful of pitchers in each of the last seven games. The wildcard will be if CJP decides to use Jon Luke Jacobs or Grant Dayton out of the ‘pen on Friday or Saturday, instead of giving them the spot start on Sunday. Slade Smith could be another possibility. He shouldn't be too taxed after his short outing against Alabama on Wednesday. One thing is certain; Auburn will need to pick our matchups carefully. Personally, I hope Stephen Kohlscheen (who hasn't seen action since the Arizona State series) will get some work.
SCOUTING CAROLINA- The Gamecocks strength is in their arms. They have a ton of talented pitchers and a bullpen that makes other clubs envious. The script will be flipped for Auburn this weekend. Last weekend, AU was able to bide our time and wait until the UGA pen came in to bust the game open. That probably won't be the case this weekend. Honestly, Auburn probably doesn't even want it rely on the Carolina ‘pen. With all three of the USC starters going around 5 or 6 innings, Auburn needs to jump out to an early lead and coast till the end. You really don't want to let up off the gas, but for Carolina, a close ball game will favor the Gamecocks. Auburn will need to get a big lead and pad it. Offensively, Carolina isn't flashy. They don't steal a lot and don't hit for a ton of power. What they do well is get timely hits and string together singles. The Garnett and Black is very solid at station to station baseball. In the field, they are even better and are one of the best field teams in the nation. USC does a solid job of transitioning balls in play into outs. The key for Auburn will be to find gaps, keep pressure on, and hopefully be able to keep the long ball going. You can read my in-depth take on South Carolina here.
I'll be live tweeting the games this weekend and giving updates, so go ahead and follow me @AUPPL First pitch for tonight is at 6:30, Saturday is High Noon (and televised on CSS and ESPN360), and Sunday is at 1:00pm. It should be a great series of baseball and Auburn would benefit by huge crowds. A side note on Friday's game, Auburn is advising fans to come early because parking will be limited thanks to the Will Graham Concert Special happening at Beard Eaves around the same time.