The Real Season Begins
Great to get a win on Tuesday against Alabama in the Max Capital City Classic. Granted the offense wasn't there and really isn't anywhere close to where it needs to be. Let me rephrase, the offense is there; the situational hitting is not. That's the main drag for Auburn. Sure, we can get guys on base, but then brainfarts abound and big innings are killed before doing any damage. It's quite the frustrating situation to be in. Now that the Classic is out, it's time to focus on the real task at hand: The SEC. This weekend brings another Top 10 opponent in Arkansas. The Hogs are a bit of a mystery. Yes, they are ranked in the Top 10, but who exactly have the played? The 14-2 record is deceiving. I can give them credit for going to West and taking 3 of 4 from San Diego State. Kudos. However, this isn't the same SDSU team from years past. Stephen Strasburg isn't suiting up for the Aztecs again any time soon. No, that's an SDSU team with only 3 wins on the season. Arkansas has played ZERO games against Top 50 RPI (Auburn has played 4) and Their only quality win is a 3 game sweep of Utah (RPI 70). However, before we can talk about the Hogs, we have to look at Auburn. So here's your reset button on Auburn so far this year and heading into SEC Play:
Give Auburn credit in this area. The pitching has been a bit of a surprise. Sure, there have been bumps and a few bruises, but over the past two weeks I've seen the arms improve. Zach Blatt is pitching out of his mind right now and looks like he wants that closer title. The 4 or so innings he's thrown against Arizona State and Alabama are the best I've ever seen him. The main issue with Auburn right now is starting pitching and we'll see our first shake up this weekend. In my mind, Auburn has about 6 guys competing for 3 weekend spots :Andrew Morris, Will Irvin, Slade Smith, Cory Luckie, Derek Varnadore, and Jon Luke Jacobs. Slade has struggled a bit in his past two outings and it seems like the decision was made to move him to the bullpen. Saturday is listed as TBD (Luckie Friday, Varnadore Sunday) and the general consensus is that Will Irvin will get a shot. In the even Irvin falters, then the back up would be Andrew Morris. I assume. It's not the end of the world for Auburn and for Slade. In fact, I see it as a bit of a good thing. Think back to last year and Slade's relief work against Ole Miss. It was incredible. Normally when Auburn makes pitching changes, it's with runners on and in desperate need to ground balls. Who's the best arm we have to accomplish that? Slade Smith. Irvin has looked solid in his midweek outings. Starter solid? We'll probably find out this weekend. Now, if Bradley Hendrix can use the Alabama game as a springboard then I'll feel even better about the rotation. We'll have three solid long tossers (Jacobs, Morris, Slade), two guys with a closer mentality (Blatt and Ethan Wallen) and a two nice stop-gap options (Dillon Ortman and Sean Ray). Now, if we can get Will Kendall and Jay Wade to start contributing, I'll be ecstatic.
I can't sit here and complain about the hitting. If I do, it's just going to sound like whining. Dan Gamache has been outstanding. Wes Gilmer is keeping himself in the lineup. Hargett has been up and down (but more up than down). McElroy is consistent. Justin Fradejas does his thing (much to the admonishment of some fans when he squares around to bunt with 2 out) and to his credit, it's working. The only issues are with two big slumps from two big players. Kevin Patterson and Creede Simpson. Creede finally laced a single on Tuesday and maybe, just maybe, that's the spark he needs to get rolling again. Patterson is falling into the same trap as last season where he is getting frustrated/impatient and that's leading to more strikeouts. The other thing, and it's not really an issue, just an observation, is the platoon in left field. Brooks Beisner and Cullen Wacker. Brooks is the better power threat and the better hitter, but Wacker is going to get this playing time based on the pitching matchups. I'd love to see Beisner in a full time role, but at this point Wacker is just going to have to hold his own when he gets his chances. Something that hasn't been talked about much is what's going on with Tony Caldwell. His shoulder has been a little tender (according to Pawlowski) and the company line is "he's available to pinch hit". Still, he's yet to PH and has been pretty much out of commission since the Charleston Tournament. That's two weekends ago. Blake Austin is doing yeoman's work and really stepped up on Tuesday. However, he's yet to record a hit at the plate. That's a big hole at the bottom of the lineup. Pawlowski didn't address the Caldwell situation at his press conference Thursday morning, so I don't know if it's an issue or not. Finally, there's the Zach Alvord situation. Personally, I wish he could play. I think with more at-bats he can settle in nicely and probably pick up some slack while Creede is slumping. Realistically, that's not happening. Wes Gilmer's play and his bat have cemented his status at 3rd base. Gamache is perfect in the DH role. McElroy and Hargett aren't leaving any time soon. That leaves Alvord as the odd man out. It's unfortunate, but it's life. You can't expect him to move to the OF. For now, Zach just has to bide his time and wait.
This is going to be a grueling stretch for Auburn and the main thing will be to either tread water or stay on top. Then again, all SEC play is like that. It's going to be a stretch where it's off then on for Auburn. Tough competition, little lighter, tough, light, tough light. Arkansas (tough), Mississippi State (light), Vanderbilt (tough), Kentucky (light), LSU (tough), Ole Miss (light), South Carolina (tough), UGA, Bama, Tennessee (light). It's a very front loaded schedule, but Auburn can't go in to it with the mentality that I have. Instead it's a pretty simple rule for SEC play: Avoid Sweeps against the Top, Try to Sweep against the bottom. That's the best way the Tigers can make up ground. A perfect record or ideal situation would be for Auburn to go into the final 3 series with a conference record of 15-7. That's assuming Auburn can sweep the "light" series, avoid sweeps from the "heavy" series, and steal one of those heavy series along the way. 14-7 with 9 games to play would mean that Auburn would have a legitimate shot of playing it's way into a Regional hosting job (just like that year). Either way, it will all start this weekend against he Hogs. Play Ball.