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March 14, 2013- -
AUBURN | Now the real tests begin.
Auburn coach John Pawlowski spent the early portion of its season, which offered his team few meaningful challenges, assessing his team's personalities. He tinkered with lineups, made certain that junior-college transfer Michael O'Neal was as good as advertised, allowed sophomore Rocky McCord to earn his spot as the team's Sunday starter.
Those questions have been answered - and not a moment too soon. Second-ranked Vanderbilt, led by a powerful group of pitchers and experience throughout the lineup, opens the Southeastern Conference series tonight at Plainsman Park.
Pawlowski likes how his team responded during the season's first month. And he's not fretting the Commodores' reputation.
"It becomes irrelevant where teams are ranked because everybody is ranked. Everybody has a good team. Everybody has a chance to beat anybody," he said. "That's why this league is so good. It's a challenge. Vanderbilt happens to be ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the country and that's a tribute to what they've done. But that's what playing here at Auburn is -- every weekend, you're going to get a quality opponent and this is no different."
This challenge is unusually taxing.
Vanderbilt sends a likely first-round pick to the mound on Friday (Kevin Ziomek) and the other weekend starters have earned-run averages below 1.50. The team also leads the league in stolen bases and is among SEC leaders in batting average, runs and homers.
There is no weak link.
Still, Pawlowski is encouraged by his team's ability to repel the visitors' firepower. Seven of his nine batters have at least two years of experience, which should help the Tigers limit their number of fruitless at-bats.
"We've got some experience up and down that lineup, guys that have had big at-bats for us against great competition," Pawlowski said. "I feel pretty good where we are offensively right now -- especially with the experience we have in that lineup."
Pitching is a slightly different story.
Sophomore Daniel Koger has been excellent in some ways -- opponents are batting just .203 against him so far -- though he hasn't recorded a decision in four starts. O'Neal, who will start Saturday, dominated Brown last weekend with a complete-game shutout and is 4-0 this season.
McCord has struck out 16 batters in 18 innings this season. When he locates his fastball well, as he has during the past two weekends, the sophomore is an ideal complement.
Another strong arm will be entering the fray soon.
Lefty Will Kendall made his first appearance of the season at Kennesaw State on Tuesday night, striking out two batters in one inning of work. He underwent arm surgery last spring and is well ahead of schedule in terms of being ready to contribute.
Though the junior isn't quite ready to work deep into games just yet, he's closer than anyone expected. He was 4-0 with a 1.88 ERA last season before the injury.
"I was very encouraged by what he did (Tuesday)," Pawlowski said. "He felt like he could have gone more, but we're trying to follow protocol and trying to do right for his progress coming back. We're going to try to get him into the mix as much as possible because I do think he's a big piece of the puzzle here as we move into conference play."