By MATTHEW STEVENS
While it may have been short-term success last weekend, the two teams arriving at Dudy Noble Field are going to try and parlay those good vibes into another series victory.
Even with the new aluminum bat that has quieted offenses over the past two years, Auburn (14-7, 2-1 in Southeastern Conference) managed to have three swings turn their opening series win over defending champion Arkansas.
A grand slam home run by senior first baseman Kevin Patterson on Saturday and a pair of RBI-singles in the eighth inning on Sunday turned around late-inning Razorback leads in the final two games of the weekend.
“We have to play at a high level, a championship level,” Auburn head coach John Pawlowski said. “Mississippi State is off to a great start and we know that it will be a battle. Anytime you get into the SEC, no matter who you play or where you play, it poses a great test."
After being shut out for two games at Vanderbilt, Mississippi State (15-6, 1-2 in SEC) put up nine runs in the final game against the Commodores to steal the Sunday game.
“Anytime you win in the league like that and now you haven't scored and now you put a nine spot on the board, that's huge,” Mississippi State head coach John Cohen said. “To get where we want to go then you have to beat these guys and I think it will spring us forward.”
Cohen said his Sunday starter on the mound would likely be junior pitcher Nick Routt after the southpaw was dominant in a practice scrimmage Tuesday showcasing his secondary pitches as well as an 88-91 mile-per-hour fastball.
“I think Nick feels like the changeup is what hurt him physically and he'll be different,” Cohen said. “He’s dying to get out there. Our players are getting excited about his progress because they know he's done it in our league before.”
Mississippi State will continue to use its one-two pitching duo of Devin Jones tonight and sophomore Chris Stratton on Saturday afternoon.
The only change to the Bulldogs pitching strategy will be moving freshman C.T. Bradford back to the bullpen for a one-inning relief role against left-handers late in a game. Cohen and MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson experimented with the 5-foot-8 hard-throwing southpaw Sunday at Vanderbilt by starting him but had to take him out hook after he gave up four runs in the first inning.
“He kind of got into the mode of pacing himself instead of attacking like he does in late innings,” Cohen said. “He's got a bright future and will pitch more for us but not in a starting role.”
On the mound, Auburn’s statistics are one of the worst in the league in hits allowed, runs allowed and extra base hits.
The Tigers will start left-handed junior Cory Luckie, who struggled giving up four runs in 3 2/3 innings against Arkansas. Cohen said with the foot injury to outfielder Brent Brownlee could mean playing time for freshman Taylor Stark.
Brownlee injured his foot stepping on a base last weekend and has been in a walking boot all week. While the junior’s x-rays early in the week came back negative, the coaching staff is being careful with the outfielder to protect against a possible stress fracture.
“We need to score runs,” Cohen said. “We need to be able to get over the not being able to get runners in scoring position problem. Our calling card needs to be the amount of arms we have and the defense we play.”
Stark, who is batting .273 in a reserve situation so far this season, played a key role in MSU’s Sunday win at Vanderbilt, driving in the first run of a five-run eighth-inning burst and then moving to the mound to retire five of the six batters he faced at game’s end to preserve the win.
The Tigers have claimed seven of the last eight meetings and four of the last five series, including last year’s sweep at Auburn.