Earth Meet Auburn. Auburn, Earth.
There was a buzz going into Tuesday’s game against South Alabama was palpable. Auburn fans were no longer talking about Hoover, instead they were talking about Auburn hosting an NCAA Regional.
One swing of the bat by South Alabama’s Sean Laird put an end to all that. It also brought in to focus a problem for Auburn over the Tiger’s last 4 games. Hidden in the sweep of Mississippi State was the fact that Auburn pitching is once again struggling. After the Jaguars tied up the game in the ninth on a two run home run and then won it in the 11th, those problems have once again boiled up to the surface.
Auburn came crashing back down to Earth and personally, I don’t think it could have come at a better time. For all the progress Auburn has made this season, the Tigers still have a ton of work to do. What’s puzzling to me is how many Auburn fans has penciled last night’s game as an automatic W for Auburn. This is still a South Alabama team that is 45-22 All time against Auburn and 26-9 at Stanky Field (the Jags’ home park). South Alabama came in to the game hungry and fighting for any RPI boost it could get. Auburn came in still a bit hung over from the Mississippi State series. That was evident. No Auburn pitcher was truly effective. Cole Nelson pitched stellar in relief but all his work was wiped out with the Two Run HR in the 9th.
- There was no Austin Hubbard Tuesday. That’s a good thing. After pitching 3 straight games last weekend he needed a rest. I don’t care how well he feels and how good he think he can be; Auburn needs a fully healthy Austin for the UT series.
- Yes, the loss stings. However, RPI wise it’s not as bad as say losing to Indiana in extra innings like one SEC team did. I don’t know how many times I can hammer this point across: South Alabama is a good team. The Jags ALWAYS have a good team. You don’t get to be an NCAA #1 Seed twice in the last decade (from a “Mid-Major” conference) by being a scrub. USA loves to beat Auburn and will do anything they can to accomplish that, especially at home.
- One other small microcosm was who actually produced for Auburn. Wes Gilmer, Casey McElroy, and Justin Fradejas carried most of the load offensively. For Gilmer and McElroy especially that’s a good sign, as next year Auburn will be leaning on both of them pretty heavily. This offseason is going to be an interesting one for Wes Gilmer. When called upon, he’s shown he can be clutch. However, with Auburn’s incoming recruiting class he’s once again going to be battling for a position. He played 2B last night in Justin Hargett’s absence (family matter). Next year however, both McElroy and Gilmer could both have incoming freshman pushing them out of position with the addition of Zach Alvord and Tyler Dial. The infield position battle will definitely be one to watch going into the 2011 season.
- Dexter Price has struggled. Some Auburn fans keep wondering why Price and his spotless record and low ERA aren’t being used on the weekend. Last night showed why. Dexter’s command just wasn’t there. He’s got the tools, he’s just not using them correctly.
- I guess Cole Nelson might be officially in the bullpen, but honestly with Coach John Pawlowski, I have no clue. We won’t get the weekend rotations until Friday (Thursday at the earliest) but I’d take Vegas Odds that Saturday will still be listed as TBA, with it coming down to Nelson and Slade Smith. Smith looked to be in a little better control tonight, but still it will be hard to pick a front runner.
- Does this hurt Auburn’s chances to host a regional? Well, it certainly doesn’t help. Right now Auburn is at the cusp for hosting. The Regional Radar will be up soon and I think Auburn will know exactly what it needs to do to host.
- Another question came up about the use of Sean Ray, who is normally a situational pitcher. He didn’t have a favorable matchup on the game winning at bat, but he did have one in the next batter. I know exactly what CJP was trying to do. The odds say keep Ray in. You have a 2 run lead and if he walks him then it would set up a play at every base. Ultimately all that was moot after Ray gave up the HR, which by the way, Laird knew was coming:
- "I was looking for a pitch up," Laird said of his eighth home run of the season and first since April 13th. "He was a left-hander and I figured he would try to go away with off-speed stuff. He gave me a good pitch to hit with a 2-1 count."
Bottom Line. This was a wake up call for Auburn, and one that was sorely needed. The focus this season is a return to Hoover. Anything else, at this point, is secondary. One positive I will take from the game is that Auburn saw first hand EXACTLY what it needs to work on in order to make a post season run. Better now than in say Game 2 of the SEC tournament.