Title on the line for Tigers

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The record isn’t what Auburn players and coaches wanted or expected. But the unusual journey that has been the 2011 season has taken them to the cusp of a second straight championship.

Casey McElroy is the Tigers' offensive leader

The Tigers (28-25, 13-14) are one of four teams tied for first place in the Southeastern Conference West as they prepare to open a three-game series at Tennessee (23-28, 5-22) today at 5 p.m at Lindsey Nelson Stadium. Over the next three days, the wild West Division race will finally be settled and the field for next week’s SEC Tournament will be set.

Auburn, Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi State are first place in the West. Ole Miss is one game behind and LSU, in last place, is two games behind.

Alabama plays at home against South Carolina, Arkansas plays at home against Ole Miss and LSU plays at Mississippi State. Any of those teams could secure the No. 2 seed in the SEC Tournament or could fail to make the field altogether.\

The Tigers have been strong on most SEC weekends, winning six of nine series and five of their last six. At the same time, their three series losses were sweeps against Vanderbilt, Mississippi Stater and South Carolina. In midweek games, mostly against instate teams, the Tigers have struggled mightily. They lost 8-1 at South Alabama on Tuesday night.

“We’ve been through it all year,” Auburn coach John Pawlowski said. “This team has been very resilient. They haven’t flinched. We continue to keep moving forward, and that’s what we’ve been doing all year. We’ve stubbed our toes times throughout the course of the year, but this group of players is focused and locked in. They know what we’ve got to do.”

Auburn holds tiebreakers over every West Division team but Mississippi State. In any tie involving teams other than Mississippi State, the Tigers would secure the No. 2 seed in the SEC Tournament.

But there’s more at stake. To be in position to play in an NCAA regional, they must have a winning overall record. Two wins over Tennessee would guarantee that, even if there were to go two-and-out in the SEC Tournament.

“We’ve put ourselves in a position where we don’t have much margin for error at this point in time,” Pawlowski said. “The team is aware of it. The coaches and players, everybody is aware of it. First and foremost we’re going up there this weekend trying to win some ballgames in Knoxville.”

Though Tennessee is all but assured of finishing last in the overall SEC race, the Vols have had some impressive moments. They won two of three from Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Though they were swept at South Carolina, they gave up just five runs in three games. But since beating Alabama on April 16, they have been swept by Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and LSU, losing nine straight SEC games. Tuesday night, they lost 6-3 to Belmont.

Pawlowski said his focus is on his own team.

“We expect we are going to face a big challenge,” Pawlowski said, “but it’s not so much about what Tennessee brings to the table. It’s about what the Auburn Tigers will bring to the table.”

Junior Jon Luke Jacobs (1-3, 3.44) will get the start for Auburn. Jacobs has had three consecutive strong starts. Ace Derek Varnadore (5-2, 3.60) will get the start Friday. Pawlowski has not named a starter for Saturday, but it will likely be sophomore Slade Smith.

Junior shortstop Casey McElroy leads the Tigers in hitting at .360 and in runs batted in with 51. He shares the home run lead with eight. Seniors Justin Fradejas and Tony Caldwell have heated up down the stretch. Fradejas is hitting .327 and Caldwell .324.

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