Editor's Note: Today we get a preview of the huge weekend baseball series between Auburn and Alabama. As he does each week, Kevin Ives of Plainsman Parking Lot joins us to give a preview. Be sure to check out his website to get all your Auburn baseball news...
Part of me hates to put a do-or-die attitude towards an early season SEC game. That part needs to shut the hell up. This is a huge series for Auburn. Take away that this is a rivalry game. Dismiss the fact that Auburn won against Alabama earlier in the year. Ignore the sad truth that Auburn hasn't won a series in Tuscaloosa since the 2004 season. This series, on Easter weekend, will determine if Auburn will spend the rest of the year playing catch-up in the SEC or if we can sit pretty and hold tight for a while. I wouldn't go so far to say that a series win means Auburn can book its hotel room for Hoover. However, I would say that with a series win, they can at least go on Priceline.com and search for the best rates. Why is this series so important? It all boils down to the SEC race. At the end of Sunday, the jumbled race looked a lot like this:
Rank - Team - Record
1 - LSU 5-1
1 - USC 5-1
3 - Auburn 4-2
3 - Arkansas 4-2
3 - Ole Miss 4-2
3 - Florida 4-2
3 - Vandy 4-2
8 - Alabama 2-4
8 - Mississippi State 2-4
10 - Kentucky 1-5
10 - Georgia 1-5
12 - Tennessee 0-6
See that huge cluster at the top of the heap and a big gap between teams 8-12 (which Auburn needs to stay above)? Looking at this weekend's slate of games, when all is said and done, then that gap between top and bottom is going to grow wider. Auburn needs to win to cement its place towards to the top of the standings. Auburn needs to take ground now, especially with the LSU series looming next weekend.
SCOUTING THE TIDE: For Alabama, it's all about pitching. Specifically, the front starting rotation of Jimmy Nelson and Adam Morgan. Nelson is one of the best pitchers in the league, giving up only 7 earned runs all season and only one homerun. He's a league leader in Strikeouts (34), Wins (4), and opponent batting average (.219) As a staff, the Tide have only given up 99 ERs (tops in the league). They've limited the damage all year rarely giving up extra base hits. Most of the credit there is thanks to stellar fielding (that ranks 3rd in the SEC) from a defense that has only committed 21 errors (again, towards the top of the SEC) all year. Despite having a team ERA of 3.91, the Tide ranks towards the bottom in Strikeouts (187, 11th in the League). The main threat offensively is Taylor Dugas, who, along with SS Josh Rutledge, provide a nice 1-2 punch. Dugas leads the SEC in Batting Average and is a patient and speedy hitter. A perfect leadoff man, Dugas has 11 steals on the season. Rutledge is second in the SEC in hits (42, 2 behind Hunter Morris) and ranks in the top 12 in RBIs and Total Bases. Rutledge is a threat at the dish, as well as in the field, as he and 2B Ross Wilson, comprise one of the toughest middle infields in the SEC.
FRADEJAS STILL FLYING: Auburn has found their leadoff man in OF Justin Fradejas. The JUCO transfer from Pensacola is riding a six game hitting streak where he's batting .333 with 7 runs scored. Normally six game hitting streaks aren't much to boast about. However, when you consider that Fradejas has only started six games in his Auburn career then it's something special. Just in case you couldn't read between the lines, let me rephrase. Fradejas has tallied a hit in every game his started for Auburn. Which is especially crucial because:
LINEUP SHUFFLE: Auburn tweaked their lineup a bit for Sunday's game against South Carolina. The Tigers moved Tony Caldwell up to second based on his proven ability to move runners over (he leads the SEC in SAC hits). So far (at least for 2 games) the move has worked. TC moving up has slid Creede Simpson down a bit where he can help turnover the bottom half of the Auburn lineup. Personally, I like the balanced lineup as it relieves some pressure from our 8th and 9th hitters and gives them more opportunities to bat runs in. Creede has consistently shown that he can hit for extra bases and his speed gives him an added dimension.
GOING STREAKING: Auburn is riding an impressive hitting streak. The Tigers have collected 9 or more hits in 10 straight games and it hasn't just been for power. Over the base couple of games, Auburn has been able to manufacture runs instead of relying on the longball has heavily as they did last year. This was especially evident during the Sunday South Carolina game, where Auburn didn't get an extra base hit until Tony Caldwell knocked a double late in the game.
CROWDED OUTFIELD: Another change to the lineup has been Brian Fletcher at DH. Partly because he's still nursing a sore hamstring, but another reason could be that he just doesn't have a place right now. Creede Simpson (CF) and Tony Caldwell (RF) all have perfect 1.000 fielding percentages and LF Justin Fradejas has secured his spot in LF. Right now there just isn't any room for Fletcher. Caldwell has really settled in nicely in RF and his bat is needed in the lineup. The outfield situation is going to get even more muddled went Trent Mummey returns. Once the gold glove winning CF is back to full strength, then I suspect that it would push Creede to 3B or RF and Tony Caldwell can go back to platooning with Ryan Jenkins at Catcher or filling into a DH role. However, that's a bridge to cross later in the year. For now, Fletch is DHing and thriving as he took over the team lead in Batting Average Wednesday against Troy.
LUCKIE STRIKES AGAIN: One of the keys this weekend will be which Cory shows up to pitch on Friday. If we get the UGA Luckie then Auburn can thrive. If we get the Carolina Luckie, then it could shape up to be a rough weekend. Throughout the season, Cory has had a problem giving up the long ball. Luckily, Alabama comes in hitting a league low 17 Homeruns. However, South Carolina wasn't a huge power team and they knocked Luckie around pretty good last Friday. For Cory, it's all about his location. I've heard him described as a Greg Maddux type pitcher in that when Luckie his effective he's able to hit his spots with ease. When he misses, he misses high and balls get taken for a ride. His Friday start will be the tone setter for the weekend.
NELSON VS NELSON: If you like pitching duels then Saturday is your day. Two of the league's best will square off as Auburn's 6'7" LHP Cole Nelson goes against 6'6 RHP Jimmy Nelson for Alabama. Runs will definitely be at a premium as both guys are coming off solid starts last weekend. Cole was the tough luck loser in Auburn's 2-0 loss to Carolina; while Jimmy pitched 6.2 innings of 3 run ball in a no-decision against Arkansas. It should be a doozy.
SUNDAY TBA: Neither team will reveal who the Sunday starter will be. For Auburn though, all money is on Grant Dayton. In his past two SEC starts, Grant has pitched solidly. He went 7 innings (3er/3k) against UGA and 7.1 innings (5er/2k) against South Carolina. He's bounced back from the early season where he was shuffled around a bit. The wildcard could be Dexter Price, who missed his normal midweek start. Price could work out of the bullpen (which would be his first relief appearance of the year).
BETWEEN THE NUMBERS: Auburn managed to lower its team ERA from 11th in the SEC to 9th and it currently sits at a 4.68 ERA. The rank 4th in Walks (82) and fifth in strikeouts (205). However, the real story is the SEC numbers. In SEC Only games, Auburn is 3rd in ERA (3.67) and opponent batting average (.251), while leading the league in walks allowed with a just 15 free passes given. After 25 games, Auburn's team ERA is a full run lower than it was last year (4.68 vs 5.58).
KEYS FOR AUBURN: First, limit the mistakes. Auburn leads the league in errors (with Dan Gamache leading the team, and two other players, Casey McElroy and Ryan Jenkins also registering double digit miscues) and they've proved costly in the Saturday loss to Carolina and the Wednesday loss to Troy. Alabama isn't a team that will overpower Auburn. However, they will get consistent hits. The secret here would be to reverse the trend of giving up two out runs/hits. Thankfully for Auburn, Alabama is one of the worst teams in the SEC with 2 outs. When the Tide is up with 2 outs, 75% of the time they will hit into that third out.
Second, get to the bullpen. Alabama has an odd disparity in that only 2 of their 7 losses can be attributed to their starters (Wednesday's loss to UAB and the March 24th loss to Auburn in the Capital City Classic). Everything else is from a blown bullpen. Compare that to Auburn in which 5 of the Tiger's 8 losses have gone against starters. The ERA of the Tide starters (Nelson, Morgan, Taylor Wolfe, and Jonathan Smart) is a mere 3.48. Meanwhile, the Tide bullpen has an ERA of 4.49, a full run difference. Comparatively, Auburn's starters (Nelson, Luckie, Dayton, Jon Luke Jacobs) have an ERA of 5.48 while the bullpen has an ERA of 3.99. A more realistic depiction of starters (Nelson, Luckie, Dayton, JLJ, Slade Smith and Dexter Price) lowers the starter's ERA to 4.95 and the bullpen ERA raises to 4.28. Still that's nothing like the disparity in the Alabama 'pen. Auburn will trot out a left hand batter heavy lineup which will favor the Tigers, as the Tide has an opponent batting average of .300 to left handed hitters and .250 to right handed boppers.
Lastly, make the most of opportunities. With a pitching staff the way Bama's is, Auburn will need to do even better of getting men on and moving men over. The Alabama defense is one of the toughest and smartest in the league and runs could be a premium. With a solid lineup like Auburn facing a solid defense like Alabama's, something has got to give. Auburn has shown it can hit anyone, the trick is translating those hits into runs. Especially when the Tigers get men in scoring position.
Friday's game will televised on CSS and ESPN360.com. You can follow me on Twitter (http://twitter.com/AUPPL) and I'll be giving live updates throughout the games.