Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Finding an Answer

I can't sugar coat this. These past 8 or 9 games for Auburn baseball have been tough to watch. Almost physically painful to watch. The road ahead looked pretty nice for Auburn. Coming off a big series win against Arkansas and in prime position to make a few waves in the SEC. Then came the Mississippi State buzzsaw and the Vanderbilt implosion and just like that Auburn went from the cieling to the cellar. 6 straight SEC losses, in-state drops to Troy and Jacksonville State and now the Tigers just sit a game over .500 overall. So is there an answer? Coach Pawlowski seems to think so:



"I'm not going to sit still," he said. "We're going to try to adjust things. We're going to maneuver guys around. We changed the rotation. I'm sure that when you go through something like this, we need to keep working, but there will be major changes made."





So what are those major changes? Well, before we go in to that, let's look at Auburn's focus down the stretch. The season hit it's halfway point on Tuesday (although, Auburn didn't exactly start it out on the right foot) and the Tigers face a string of about 6 straight road games. First, let's look at the SEC standings:



  1. Florida (7-2)
  2. South Carolina (7-2)
  3. Vanderbilt (7-2)
  4. Alabama (7-2)
  5. Georgia (6-3)
  6. Ole Miss (4-5)
  7. Mississippi State (4-5)
  8. LSU (3-6)
  9. Arkansas (3-6)
  10. Auburn (2-7)
  11. Kentucky (2-7)
  12. Tennessee (2-7)



If the season ended today, Auburn would be sitting at home instead of going to Hoover. That's the bad news. The good news? Auburn is a series win away from jumping back into the mix, and a series sweep away from sliding into the middle. Playing and qualifying for the SEC is simple. Just be better than 4 teams. That's it. Thankfully for Auburn, the Tigers still have games against a majority of this competition to make up some ground.



That's also why these next two weekends are so vitally important for Auburn. Kentucky and LSU. The teams that right there are the bottom with Auburn. Wins in these series and you establish distance. That's why I'm not too worried about Arkansas. Auburn still has the series win over them in their back pocket. Say Auburn rights the ship and takes a series from LSU and Kentucky? Then that's 3 of the 4 teams around you that you've distanced yourself from. With Tennessee still on the schedule, Ole Miss (and who knows what teams shows up then) and Georgia (who have an odd combination of luck and tenancity these days). Auburn has series that I can safely call "winnable". Auburn will need these, desperately.



Why? I'll stand by this thinking. Even if Auburn is the 8th seed into Hoover, just making it will cement a place in the NCAA post season. That's the goal right now. Go to Hoover and punch your dance card.


The Issue(s)


Auburn, right now, has two major issues. The first is defense with two outs. The numbers (which I don't have at hand) are astounding. It lead to implosions against Vanderbilt and Troy. I don't have an immediate answer for this. My main theory is that it's a byproduct of Auburn's pitching. I can't think of any of our pitchers who have a garunteed "out" pitch. Everything for the Auburn hurlers seems to build off of fastballs. That's nothing odd. A ton of pitchers do that. It's a pretty common strategy. However, once those fastballs are thrown, established, and used, it's a bit tough to go back to that well. It becomes obvious. Hitters can just tee off and sit back and wait. Luckie has a bit of a changeup. Slade has a sinker. Morris a pretty solid curve. That's about it. So when crunch time comes and Auburn can only throw up "Dead Reds" we are going to get killed.


The second issue is kind of a by-product of the first. It's the lack of consistent pitching. From starters to the bullpen (but mainly the bullpen, honestly) I don't know if there is a guy right now, outside of Derek Varnadore, that I'd have completely faith in on the hill.

Issue one and issue two are so symbiotic that they can almost be lumped into one huge major issue. Some people might look at the offense as an issue. In a way? Yes. However, when you look at it. The bats have been there. Even last night. The issue with the offense is just a matter of timely hitting.


The Answer(s)


Pawlowski mentioned "major changes". I'm not sure what he's going to qualify as a "major change". All I can do is theorize/postulate with a few bullet points:



  • The Rotation is still going to be patchwork. For now, I think it shakes out as Andrew Morris, Jon Luke Jacobs, Derek Varnadore.

  • Cory Luckie and Slade Smith are going to have to prove themselves out of the bullpen before moving back into the rotation.

  • Dillon Ortman will have a more prominent role out of the bullpen and possibly be a darkhorse to start.

  • Not a theory, but just a suggestion. Maybe Auburn should warm up multiple guys when we go to the bullpen. There have been too many times when guys have been left to dry because we didn't have any available arms.

  • Will Kendall needs to have a more prominant role. He had some nice flashes on Tuesday and he would give Auburn another Lefty arm.

  • Bobby Andrews will see more and more playing time in the OF. Possibly pushing Creede Simpson out of the lineup.

  • At some point, Auburn needs to completely figure out Zach Alvord's role. If you are going to play him at SS, you have to keep McElroy (and his iffy defense) at 2B. That moves Hargett out. You could put Gamache at 3B and DH Hargett, but that pushes Wes Gilmer out. That's the biggest mess Auburn has offensively. Hargett and Patterson didn't even start Tuesday but they need to see the field in order for Auburn to win. Putting Gilmer at 1B just isn't the best option.

  • Jay Gonzalez isn't completely ready yet. He's getting close, but until he can hit left handed pitching, he needs to be a base runner solely.



So those are just some theories. We'll see what happens this weekend. These next two series are as close to "Must-Win" as Auburn can face right now.

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