Recent Games Raise Questions About Tigers

Columnist Phillip Marshall takes a look at the Auburn baseball team as it seeks to regain its winning edge.

A week ago, I thought Auburn was a lock to be a host for a regional, would probably be a host for a super regional and had better than a fighting chance to go to the College World Series. Now I'm not so sure of any of that.

Arkansas came to Plainsman Park last weekend and won two of three. Arkansas is very good, certainly the best SEC team that has played at Auburn this season. But a College World Series contender shouldn't lose a series to Arkansas at home.

Well, I thought, it wouldn't have happened if Eric Brandon had not been all but helpless on the mound Friday night. Tuesday night, Auburn went to Mobile to play South Alabama. That's a dangerous midweek game to play between two SEC series at this time of year. But, I reasoned, the Tigers would remember the 17-4 drubbing the Jaguars put on them in March. This time, it was only 10-1.

Well, I thought again, South Alabama had an emotional edge, Auburn used down-the-line pitchers and it was, after all, a midweek game that didn't mean a lot in the great scheme of things.

Friday night, the Tigers went to Nashville to play Vanderbilt. They lost 7-4. That's no major upset. Left-hander Jeremy Sowers, a former No. 1 draft choice, has won four straight Friday night games. Vanderbilt won two of three over LSU last weekend. But here's the cold truth: The Tigers have lost four of their last five games. They gave up four unearned runs Friday night and saw a promising ninth-inning rally die after Javon Moran was thrown out at second on a baserunning blunder. They aren't playing like a College World Series team or like an SEC championship contender.

Auburn can still make this a good weekend by winning the next two at Vanderbilt, but the question must now be asked. Is this Auburn team as strong as it appeared for the first two months of the season? The honest answer is I don't know.

Starting pitching has been a problem all season. Even when the Tigers were rolling, it was the most inconsistent part of the team. Sooner or later, that is going to catch up with a you. And it did. For the second straight week, Arnold Hughey pitched a fine game Friday night except for one inning. And for the second straight week, that inning did him in.

This has never been a really strong hitting team. For much of the season, the Tigers made up for it by getting big hits at crucial times. Those hits aren't coming as consistently as they once did. It doesn't take much of a slip to fall behind in the SEC West. In the unlikely event that LSU, a 17-4 winner over Tennessee on Friday, loses the next two, Auburn could come out of the weekend in first place by winning the next two. It could also come out of the weekend as far back as fifth place if it loses the next two.

The Tigers aren't far off. They might regain the edge as quickly as they lost it. Colby Paxton, whose last two outings have been his best, will be under the gun on Saturday. Cory Dueitt will get his first crack this season Sunday at starting an SEC game. If he is as good as a starter as he has been as a reliever, that will be a big boost.

Karl Amonite and Tug Hulett are red-hot at the plate. If the Tigers are to go back to their big winning ways, others need to join them. After this weekend, the Tigers play Florida at home, go to LSU and play Ole Miss at home. There is still plenty of time to turn things back around, to win enough games that they could get to the College World Series without having to leave home in the postseason. Are they good enough to do it? I believe they are, but I am no longer certain.

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