What to Watch For: The Uphill Climb
So it begins for Auburn. The toughest stretch so far of the season. A stretch, that by all accounts, Auburn could have dropped a few games in and still be in good shape. However, after the disaster in Starkville this past weekend, Auburn is put in a very tough spot. Just 4 games over .500 and a schedule has the next four games against ranked opponents. Not only are these teams ranked, but Vanderbilt will come in as the Number One team in the country. Yes, technically, the next 5 games are against ranked teams (because we play Troy next Tuesday as well), but we'll worry about that next Monday. At least these next four are at home, a place where Auburn is comfortable. They are vitally important because this weekend and these next four games will either serve as a springboard, or possibly, the fuse that begins a season implosion.
Sorry to make it sound so grim, but that's just how it is. Scuffling isn't the right word for what's happening right now. No, this is an absolute tailspin and how Auburn responds will show a lot about the future of Auburn baseball in 2011.
What Am I Watching For?
RESPONDING WITH TWO OUTS
How Auburn responds with two outs, both offensively, but mainly defensively. Mississippi State absolute killed the Tigers scoring with two outs last weekend. It's basic baseball, you need to shut the door. Two outs (and in most cases two outs and two strikes) start so many chain reactions in baseball. Runners leave early and take risks, guys don't worry about tagging up, defenses shift suddenly, swings become shorter. Two Out at bats are the catalysts for good teams. Singles rack up RBIs, double devastate and offenses can really blow innings open. All it takes is two outs.
It's demoralizing, too. You're this close to ending the frame, limiting the damage, and having a chance to respond. If you don't then you have to start all over again and the snowball just grows larger and larger.
Offensively it's the same thing. You want a team that fights. I hate to use Alabama as an example, but the Crimson Tide softball team has a huge motto, it's plastered on the foul poles and around the dugout. It simply says: Two Away? So What? (or something to that affect). No at-bat should be viewed as a final at-bat, baseball isn't a finite game. It's never over until you say it's over. If there are two outs? So what? Keep fighting and keep playing smart.
Jon Luke Jacobs and the Weekend Impact
JLJ gets the start on the hill tonight. His start is of vital importance, but reading between the lines, it's who doesn't make an appearance tonight that could start a big change for the weekend. I'm looking for Andrew Morris. Morris is next in line for a weekend start. If he doesn't take the mound tonight, then I'd say he has about a 70% chance of starting this weekend.
JLJ needs to go deep into tonight's game. He has to eat up innings and prove just what kind of pitcher he is. This is just check time for him. Once he's done though, whoever comes next will tip the hand for the weekend. If it's Morris, then we can assume the weekend rotation is Luckie, Irvin, Varnadore. If it's Luckie? Then all bets are off.
Personally, I think Irvin should at least throw an inning. Auburn needs to know if last Saturday was an aberration, or the new norm for him. If Irvin can't locate his fastball, then he's lost his spot. It's as simple as that. He couldn't locate it Saturday and State pretty much took BP against him. If he can come in, locate, look good? Then Irvin could maintain that Saturday slot. If not? Well, Morris is nipping at the heels.
If Cory Luckie comes in, then it's going to be a surprise, but it's going to show me that Coach Pawlowski isn't playing favorites. He's here to win. Yes, Luckie is a senior, but if he can't get the job done then he has to move to the bullpen. He did it last year and it actually worked out a little better for him.
Finally, I want to see what Slade Smith does. If he makes an appearance tonight, I hope it's a confidence builder. He's gotten battered a bit and it could be something as simple as a lack of break on his sinker. Possibly pitch placement. Slade has a tendency to leave pitches up and batters will feast.
The Bats to Come Out Hot
This is a minor thing, but something big for Auburn. The pitchers need cushion. They need a little wiggle room. When Auburn wins, they score early. Over the weekend, that response and attitude wasn't there. That early stat of Auburn coming out and outscoring opponents over something like a 3:1 margin the first three innings? I'm sure that's come back down to earth a bit. In order for Auburn to right the ship, that's one of the first things that needs to return.
Assorted Odds and Ends
One player to watch for? Bobby Andrews. I think he might have played himself into some regular PT and tonight would be a good chance for him to bring a little spark.
Hargett has struggled a bit. It looks like CJP isn't going to make him work through it, instead, Zach Alvord is getting another shot in the infield.
Speaking of the infield. Gamache will make his first go at third base (Caldwell will DH). That's a shrewd move. Gamache had some fielding issues and I hope the lay off doesn't affect him.
Lastly, I just want a win. I desperately want a win. I want so bad for Auburn baseball to be good and watching a struggle like this is physically painful.
Why? Because I see the opportunity in the SEC and I see that Auburn isn't taking this Golden Chance.
War Eagle and Let's Get 'Em Tigers.