Monday, March 29, 2010

Recap: Cold ‘Cocked


I have mixed emotions from this weekend’s series. Auburn played ugly baseball Friday, lost a heartbreaker Saturday, and did enough to win and rebound on Sunday. Yes, losing the series is frustrating, especially after being so close on Saturday,  but on the positive side, 1) it wasn’t a sweep 2) Auburn still remains tied for 2nd in the West (and 4th overall) in the SEC and 3) better to have that one win Sunday and carry the momentum into the next series. I’ve linked the official recaps but here’s my take on the weekend action:

What can be said about Friday? Absolutely nothing. Auburn had the crowd, the momentum, and looked geeked up to finally snap a ridiculously long losing streak to the Gamecocks. However, it just wasn’t Cory Luckie’s night. Nothing was biting, nothing was fooling, and Coach John Pawlowski summed it up best:

"We got behind so early in the ball game. We were down 8-2 before we came to bat in the second inning and that makes it tough against a team like South Carolina. They jumped us early," Auburn Head Coach John Pawlowski said.

Before Auburn could even blink, they were down 6 runs, Luckie had been pulled (after 1 and 2/3rds), and we had to rely on the bullpen to keep the game close. Credit Jon Luke Jacobs for keeping the game close (5.1 ip/5h/3r/1er/3bb/2k) but a 6 run deficit is hard to overcome by any team, much less a team like South Carolina. The rest of the game turned into a nightmare for Auburn, our hitting turned ice cold, the errors started piling up, and the crowd started to thin early. Plain and simple: Auburn just got Cold ‘Cocked on Friday.

That set up a Saturday game at High Noon, on TV, and with Auburn’s best pitcher on the mound. Normally, an outing to the tune of 7.2 ip/4h/1er/0bb by Cole Nelson should be enough to win. However, credit the South Carolina pitching staff. They showed why they are one of the best in the SEC. Sam Dyson (one of the best pitchers in the league) went 7 innings/10h/9k and Carolina really rode him for 116 pitches. He limited the damage and hit his spots all day, and even though Auburn had the bases loaded at least twice, the Tigers failed to plate a run. Those are the breaks sometimes. You could argue about the officiating till you are blue in the face, but the onus lands squarely on Auburn and it was the first time Auburn had been shut out at Plainsman Park since 2005.

That set up a Sunday showdown, or “Championship Sunday” as Coach Palowski has been calling them. Philip Marshall called it the most important game on this young season. Thankfully Auburn responded to salvage a 10-6 Sunday win.

SO WHAT DID WE LEARN?

First I have to disagree with Kendall Rogers over at Rivals, who put Auburn in his “Weekend Losers” category:

Auburn (17-7) – The Tigers had a pair of midweek wins, one a fantastic win over rival Alabama. But with a chance to record a tide-turning SEC series win, the Tigers dropped two of three to South Carolina. Now they hit the road next weekend to face Alabama in a three-game series.

Going in, I thought Auburn’s best hope was just avoiding a sweep. I thought we’d take 1 game, but winning a series against a team that has been a perpetual thorn in Auburn’s side (and a team who Auburn hasn’t won a series against since the late 90s) was a tall order. The only people who seemed to be doubting Carolina were baseball writers. Watching the team, and knowing about Carolina, I’m actually surprised they are ranked so low. Reading between the lines, it seems like Rogers isn’t giving Auburn a chance against Alabama. However, this is a Crimson Tide team that is riding a four game losing streak (after being swept by Arkansas) and it’s a series that Auburn knows will be big in developing separation in the SEC. As it stands now here’s where Auburn is in the standings:

Rank Team Record
1 LSU 5-1
1 USC 5-1
3 Auburn 4-2
3 Arkansas 4-2
3 Ole Miss 4-2
3 Florida 4-2
3 Vandy 4-2
8 Alabama 2-4
8 Mississippi State 2-4
10 Kentucky 1-5
10 Georgia 1-5
12 Tennessee 0-6

Let’s be clear about one thing: Auburn’s goal this season is getting back to Hoover. That simple. A Return to Hoover shows that Auburn is back. Hoover leads to a regional, which leads to a rebirth in the program. All we have to do is be better than 4 teams in the league. Right now I say those 4 are UT, UGA (done), Mississippi State, and Kentucky. To be better than these teams we’ll have to win series against them (and in a perfect world sweep the series) and maybe steal a series from a mid-level team like Alabama, Vanderbilt, or Arkansas. You definitely don’t want to get swept. Looking at the SEC race, this upcoming Alabama series is a game changer. If we can take 2 out of 3 from the Tide then we can put legit distance between us and the bottom of the pack (and for good note, it will send Bama into a tailspin)

I’m not worried about our hitting. Yes, we went into polarbear-toenail mode for a bit, but the display we put on Sunday, reaffirmed my faith in the Tigers. Auburn scored 10 runs and those ten runs were all scored on a majority of singles, bunts, and smart base running. The first extra base hit didn’t come until Tony Caldwell smacked a double late in the game. With the addition of Justin Fradejas, Auburn is slowly coming back to full strength on offense.

The errors I’m also not concerned about, because frankly, they will take care of themselves. The more games Auburn plays, the better we will get in the field. Plus, and this is just me spitballing, but I think the return of Trent Mummey will push Dan Gamache back to the bench. When Mummey returns we will be loaded in the outfield (Fradejas, Mummey, Simpson, Caldwell, Bryant, Fletcher) and someone is going to be the odd way out.

Pitching wise, I’m going to be interested to see how CJP plays Luckie’s Friday performance. If Corey loses his Friday starter status after that performance, then it will show CJP has a short leash and our rotation is in total flux. Big picture this isn’t a bad thing, because as the midweek games dwindle, Auburn will be able to choose the best pitcher for the SEC series.

For now the focus is in-state. Tigers travel to Troy mid-week then to Tuscaloosa for a huge SEC series. A series I’m already going to dub the “Sink or Swim” Series. If Auburn takes 2 of 3 from Bama then we will be looking better and can breath easier on our journey to Hoover. If we lose the series? We will be treading water for a while. All photos used are Todd Van Emst Photos and can be found here.

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