5P Primer: Arkansas
Here it is. SEC play. A huge weekend and hot start that could mean the difference in Auburn playing catchup or forcing other teams to play follow the leader for the opening couple of weeks. The Hogs are such a tough squad to figure out. Yes, there is talent (less so than last year though) and yes, they have a solid 14-2 record. Still, it's come against some mid-level competition. Still, the #9 team in the nation isn't one to take lightly. It's also an odd series, recently. The visiting team has taken the last 4 series and Auburn hasn't beaten Arkansas at Plainsman Park since 2007 (under Tom Slater). The Tigers just barely lead the all time series (35-30) and do have an edge at home (16-11) but the recent history has been different.
The Hogs are a hard team to scout. The lineup/offense is pretty powerful (scoring double digits 6 times) but the burden is mainly on a handful of players. Kyle Robinson is the biggest power and HR threat (22 RBIs), Dominic Ficociello has been a revelation at First Base (.426 average/20 RBI). However, these numbers are coming against Delaware State & UW-Milwaukee. Still, the Hogs will get their hits. The onus will be on Auburn to limit the damage. Especially with hitters like Colin Kuhn and Bo Bigham. Kuhn has been in the same struggle Kevin Patterson has been in, hitting just .190 but having 2 Home Runs and 8 RBI over his last 5 games. Two holes in the lineup could come from CF Jacob Morris (.059 over his last 5) and SS Tim Carver (.196 on the season). One other hitter to watch will be C James McCann who is hitting a scorching .563 over his last five. To put it simply, the bats are potent, but are on the decline. Hopefully Auburn can take advantage of that.
Pitching wise for Arkansas, it's all about DJ Baxendale. The Sophomore RHP is 4-0 with a (wait for it) 0.00 ERA. That's right, he's yet to allow an earned run on the year.
Enough about Arkansas. Let's talk Tigers. This weekend will see the first shakeup to the rotation all season. The Saturday position is listed as TBD. The rumor is that Will Irvin could get the nod, but Andrew Morris could be a dark horse. Maybe the change will be a shot in the arm. Auburn's team era (4.07) is next to last in the league and the Batting Average against is dead last. The 126 strikeouts are also at the bottom.
However, is the issue the starting pitching, or is the bullpen? Yes, the Tigers only have 2 blown saves, but they've allowed around 40% of inherited runners to score. It's shifted the balance of games. Over the first 3 innings, Auburn hurlers have only allowed 9 runs. In the 5th and 6th innings? 32 runs. Most of the time that's where the trouble occurs and Auburn arms have hit a wall.
Offensively it's a similar thing. Auburn can jump out early (55-9 over the first three innings) but the bats go cold. However, the offense is there. The power is just lacking. Auburn leads the SEC in hits, double, but is 6th in runs, and 7th in Home Runs. We can get guys on. We just can't bring them home.
It's really going to come down to 3 players busting out of a slump. Kevin Patterson, Creede Simpson, and Tony Caldwell. Caldwell is still nursing his shoulder (I assume) but to have him back and 100% would be a huge boost. Patterson's strikeouts have increased but his hits have decreased and its been a bad combination. Creede's slump has been the most frustrating. His position in the lineup and his role on the team means Auburn really can't afford to have him go Golden Sombrero much longer.
The Arkansas Razorbacks. 14-2 on the year, #9 in the country. A surprising mix of veteran talent and a great freshman first baseman, the Hogs have been one of the hottest teams in the SEC to start the year.
Auburn took last years series 2 games to 1. The Tigers rallied to steal the series over the final two games. However, the visiting team has had the most success over the last 4 meetings.
For Arkansas, watch out for Friday starter DJ Baxendale who has yet to allow a Home Run. Also, Dominic Ficociello is that hot Freshman First Baseman and has been a great 3rd slot and clean up hitter for the Cardinal and White.
For Auburn they need to flip the script on the season. Avoid the middle inning meltdown that has plagued both the bullpen and the bats. The Tigers have shown they can come out hot, they just need to keep the momentum going. Hopefully, Creede Simpson and Kevin Patterson can start to heat up.
If you had asked me after Saturday, I would have predicted an Arkansas win or sweep. However, after the showings on Sunday and Tuesday, I'm hoping Auburn has turned a corner. Auburn wins 2 games to 1.