AUBURN | Auburn opens SEC play this weekend as second-year league member Texas A&M makes its first visit to Plainsman Park. Game times are currently set for 6 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday.
The Tigers (11-6) enter the opening conference weekend on a five-game winning streak after sweeping Mercer at home last weekend, then winning a pair of midweek contests at Kennesaw State and at home versus Alabama State.
Texas A&M (13-5) comes into the weekend having won six of its last seven games. The Aggies won the first two against Louisiana Tech last weekend before losing the Sunday contest, then swept a midweek series with UT Pan American.
"I know (Texas A&M head coach) Rob Childress really well," coach Sunny Golloway said. "We spent a lot of time going at each other in the Big 12. I know what kind of team he's going to bring in. They're going to play tough. He's a tough coach on them, they're going to play fast, and they're going to be pitching-heavy. That's what they rely on - pitching and defense, and scrapping runs. They're probably mirroring what we're trying to build here.
"They've already had their round through the SEC, and I'm getting mine. But we've got some guys that have got experience on our side. It's their first time to come here, so I expect our veterans to step up and carry us a little bit this weekend. But who knows - until we get into week three or four of the SEC, who knows who's going to be really good in our conference? We just need to get off to a good start at home."
Auburn senior Damek Tomscha has hit home runs in three-straight games and four of the last five. He is second in the SEC with five home runs and is batting .356/.508/.733 for the season.
"Offensively, I think we're swinging the bat better," Golloway said. "We're driving the ball. Our slugging percentage has really, really gotten better. And that's been important for us because before, it was taking us four or five singles to score a run. Now we're able to swing the bat and score runs."
The Tigers will send senior RHP Dillon Ortman (3-1, 2.49) to the mound for Friday's league opener. Ortman has been strong in three of four starts, including his last one against Mercer last Friday. Against the Bears, he pitched into the eighth inning for his second quality start of the year, allowing three runs (two earned) on six hits while striking out six for his third win of the year. Texas A&M will counter with 2013 All-SEC performer Daniel Mengden (RHP, 2-2, 2.67). In his last outing, he picked up the win against Louisiana Tech, holding the Bulldogs to two runs on two hits while striking out eight in seven complete innings.
Saturday will see freshman ace right-hander Keegan Thompson (3-0, 0.30) make his first SEC start. Thompson brings a 16-inning scoreless streak into the weekend. He pitched a complete-game one-hit shutout against Presbyterian on March 1, then followed that up with seven innings of shutout ball against Mercer last Saturday, allowing just two hits. The Aggies will also use a right-hander as Parker Ray (2-0, 4.15) will get the call Saturday. Ray got the win in A&M's second game with La. Tech last weekend, giving up two runs on four hits in five innings of work.
Redshirt sophomore Justin Camp (1-1, 2.10) was named Sunday's starter after a strong midweek performance against Kennesaw State. Camp picked up the win against the Owls with 6.2 innings of quality work, allowing just one unearned run as he and three other Tigers combined on the team's second one-hitter of the season. For Texas A&M, RHP Grayson Long (1-0, 0.34) will get the ball, looking to build on a quality start from last Sunday. Despite giving up just one run on four hits in 6.2 innings, Long was stuck with a no-decision as his bullpen gave up four runs in the eighth in a 5-1 Louisiana Tech victory.
"Camp (will be the Sunday starter). He threw the ball really well yesterday. Nothing against (Michael) O'Neal, but Camp just threw it too well to not be in our rotation. Keegan (Thompson) has got to be in our rotation, and you can't say enough about what (Dillon) Ortman has done as our lead guy," Golloway said.
"So we've got to go like that. If we need O'Neal, we can go to O'Neal for some long relief or a couple of lefties here and there, and if we don't, he'll go try to win that midweek game for us. We'll kind of ride that rotation. I think we're starting to settle into something."
Texas A&M is ranked No. 23 in the NCBWA poll and poses a stiff test in Golloway's conference opening series on the Plains. He knows the importance to a fast start in SEC play, and continuing to build confidence with his new team.
"I think it's crucial. I won't shy away from it," Golloway said. "I told our coaching staff that these first six - three at home and three on the road at Tennessee, and they're red-hot right now - are huge. I'm really excited. I'm here for a reason, and it's getting ready to start on Friday. Or else I'd still be at Oklahoma. Any other conference wouldn't have lured me away. This conference did, this school did. I'm probably going to be more nervous than these guys."