Auburn (17-12; 1-8) at Texas A&M (19-11; 5-4)
After a very promising series win at a highly-ranked Ole Miss team, the Aggies were rudely reminded of the challenges of SEC play by South Carolina last weekend. Despite what appeared to be a couple of favorable pitching matchups on paper for A&M, the Gamecocks outscored the Aggies 15-9 in the series and took all 3 games. I neglected to put together a weekend recap of this series for a number of reasons - mostly I've been busy at work - so I'll direct you to Aggie Athletics for summaries of the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday games in Columbia last weekend. But we're going to do exactly what the team has to do - move on from that series.
After 2 consecutive weekends on the road, the Aggies will be back at Olsen Field for the next 2 weekends to take on Auburn and Mississippi State. It is probably a good thing that the order in which those teams come to College Station is not flipped, as a struggling Auburn team should be a nice opportunity for A&M to get back on track after the tough series against USC.
Let's take a minute before we jump into previewing the Auburn series to talk about RPI. It's something I mention regularly and will continue to talk more about as we approach tournament time. For those of you unfamiliar, RPI stands for Ratings Percentage Index and is also used in college basketball to help with seeding teams for the NCAA tournament. Essentially, the RPI ranks teams based on wins and losses but adjusts for strength of schedule by valuing away wins more than home wins and away losses being less damaging than home ones. A home win counts as 0.7 of a win and a road loss counts as 0.7 of a loss, while a road win counts as 1.3 of a win and a home loss counts as 1.3 of a loss. Confused?
If you remember back to last week, the Aggies were #18 in the RPI prior to heading to South Carolina and only dropped to #22 after being swept. This is due in part to the aforementioned value of road losses counting less against your RPI and in part to the fact that South Carolina is a Top-20 RPI team. It's important to note that the Aggies' non-conference series loss at home to Pepperdine has gotten less painful, as the Waves have made the move up to #54 in the RPI. Aggie fans should root for the likes of Pepperdine, Cal State Fullerton and UNC to continue to win, as the higher those teams are in the RPI the less painful those losses become, and the 1 A&M win at Fullerton also gets more credit. The same goes on the flip side for Rice - the Owls are up to #73 as of Wednesday, and it would certainly be nice if they can stay at least in the Top 75, if not make a move up to the Top 50.
Getting back to this weekend, the Aggies will make some big changes to the pitching rotation so let's jump in and break down how A&M matches up with Auburn on the diamond.
Friday (6:35pm CDT)
LHP Conner Kendrick (2-1, 1.80, 34 K, 11 BB)
Daniel Mengden (4-1, 2.14, 37 K, 8 BB)
Kendrick is a Junior College transfer who missed the majority of the fall with health issues and started the 2013 season in the bullpen for Auburn. After throwing 24 2/3 innings in relief, Kendrick made his first start of the season last weekend against Alabama and took the loss. Kendrick gave up just 2 earned runs while striking out 6 and walking 4 in 5 1/3 innings, but the Tigers defense committed a pair of errors that allowed 4 unearned runs to the Crimson Tide. Kendrick is a strikeout pitcher, with 34 K in 30 innings pitched
Mengden's success this season, coupled with the recent struggles of Kyle Martin, forced Rob Childress' hand and moved him into the Friday night starter role. I expect that Mengden will have no problem with this change, as he has been cruising on the mound for the most part in 2013. Last Saturday's start against South Carolina was not one of his better starts this season, but it wasn't terrible and he gave the Aggies a chance to win. Mengden gave up 3 earned runs on just 4 hits in 6 innings while striking out 3 and walking 2, although he did also hit 2 batters. Look for Mengden to get back on the winning side of things against an Auburn team that scored just 8 runs in 3 games against Alabama last weekend.
Saturday (2:05pm CDT)
LHP Michael O'Neal (5-2, 2.28, 19K, 8 BB)
RHP Grayson Long (4-2, 1.45, 42 K, 1 BB)
Like Kendrick, O'Neal is also a junior college transfer in his first season at Auburn but he leads the Tigers with 43 1/3 innings pitched so far in 2013. O'Neal has started 7 games this season, most recently last Saturday against Alabama where he picked up a win after 7 2/3 innings of work without allowing an earned run (3 unearned) while striking out 3. That was a strong bounce back performance for O'Neal after struggling at LSU the weekend before, giving up 5 runs on 7 hits in just 4 innings of work.
Grayson Long pitched extremely well last Thursday in his first-ever weekend start for A&M against South Carolina, holding the Gamecocks hitless through 5 innings, but the Aggies were unable to get him the run support he needed to earn a win. Minter hit a batter to start the 6th inning but then retired the next 2 before allowing his first hit of the night to Joey Pankake. Coach Childress opted to bring in AJ Minter to face USC's best hitter and left-handed LB Dantzler, and Dantzler hit a good pitch into left field for a 2-run double that wasted Long's strong outing. Long's final line was 5 2/3 innings, 2 earned runs, 1 hit, 5 strikeouts, 3 walks and a hit batter. The Auburn hitters are very patient at the plate, so Long will need to stay in the strike zone and not issue free bases.
Sunday (1:05pm CDT)
To Be Determined
RHP Rafael Pineda (4-0, 2.25, 17 K, 5 BB)
Auburn has not officially announced their Sunday starter for this weekend, but junior LHP Will Kendall (0-2, 5.87, 8 K, 5 BB) has started the last 2 Sunday games for the Tigers. Kendall had Tommy John surgery last year and has not been the same yet in 2013. Kendall lasted a combined 3 2/3 innings in his last 2 starts against LSU and Alabama, although last week's 3-inning performance against Alabama in which he gave up just 1 unearned run was improvement from 4 unearned runs in 2/3 of an inning against LSU the previous week. Should the Tigers decide to go a different direction, the most likely options are LHP Daniel Koger (0-2, 3.96, 17 K, 14 BB) and RHP Rocky McCord (2-1, 4.30, 16 K, 12 BB).
After being pulled from the weekend starting rotation due to an inability to throw strikes, Rafael Pineda seems to have gotten things together and will be back in the Sunday spot this weekend. Pineda was excellent in last week's Tuesday start against UT-Arlington, holding the Mavericks to no runs and just 3 hits in 7 1/3 innings in a game that A&M would go on to win 7-0. Pineda started this Tuesday against UT-San Antonio before a lengthy rain delay spelled the end of his night, but Rafi went 4 innings and allowed 3 unearned runs on 7 hits with 3 strikeouts. Perhaps most importantly, Pineda has not walked a single batter in either of his last 2 starts. He will have to continue that this weekend.
What to Watch
Auburn actually had a nice start to the season thanks to an unimpressive non-conference schedule featuring weekend opponents like Maine (RPI #194), Eastern Illinois (RPI #232) and Brown (RPI #241). Unsurprisingly, Auburn has found themselves in last place in the SEC West and tied with Georgia for the worst conference record at 1-8 through 3 weekend series. The Tigers' hitting has been relatively pedestrian, with just 2 players hitting over .300 at this point in the season. Leading the way is senior 1B Garrett Cooper and freshman 2B Jordan Ebert. One thing you can certainly give Auburn credit for is their patience at the plate, drawing 133 walks so far this season, so the A&M pitchers are going to have to find the strike zone this weekend. I was also surprised to notice that Auburn's leadoff hitter, CF Ryan Tella, actually leads the team with 24 RBI. To the offensive stat comparisons!
In terms of pitching, Auburn hasn't been terrible but they certainly have not been great either. No relief pitcher who has worked more than 4 innings for the Tigers in 2013 has an ERA below 3. On the flip side of that, only 4 total pitchers on the A&M staff (including Gandy Stubblefield who has worked just 1 inning) have an ERA above 3. I think that actually speaks more to how well the bullpen has done for the Aggies for most of the season, and as I said before the year started this is a very deep, talented and young pitching staff. Getting back to Auburn though, their main options out of the bullpen are RHP Trey Cochran-Gill (0-1, 3.07, 7 K, 8 BB), RHP Reid Carter (0-0, 3.55, 10 K, 8 BB) and RHP Terrance Dedrick (1-2, 5.82, 13 K, 7 BB). Here's a look at the pitching (and defensive) comparison between the 2 teams. That's a lot of E's there, Tigers.
Here is my best guess at the lineup that the Tigers will feature this weekend.
A few things stand out when you look through the Tigers lineup. First, they have just 3 left-handed hitters who play regularly, so A&M's trio of right-handed starting pitchers has to be happy about that. The Tigers have just 1 more home run in 2013 than the Aggies, so not a lot of power for Auburn in their lineup. They do have some speed in Tella and Glevenyak, but other than that they aren't a team that will be particularly aggressive on the bases. One last note - opponents are stealing at just over a 50% clip (17-for-30) against catcher Blake Austin in 2013.
Well, I went out on a limb and picked the Aggies to take a big road series at South Carolina last weekend and fell flat on my face as A&M was swept right out of Columbia. Fortunately for the Aggies, Auburn is definitely not South Carolina and this weekend should provide a nice opportunity to forget about last weekend and get back on the right track.
Auburn sits at #79 in the RPI coming into the weekend, while A&M is at #24, so this is a series that the Aggies should absolutely win and really should sweep. I'm expecting big things out of Daniel Mengden and Grayson Long, and I think Pineda will get back in a groove. I'm calling for an Aggie sweep of the Tigers at Olsen this weekend. Let's make it happen, gentlemen.
I know it's Chilifest weekend in Snook, and there's the Friday Night Lights football scrimmage on Friday, but get out to Olsen this weekend and Give 'Em Hell! The forecast for this weekend makes it look like we should have some beautiful weather for baseball, so be sure to get to Olsen and support the Ags.
See y'all at Olsen and BTHO Auburn!