That was shown again on Tuesday night as the Tigers fell 8-1 at South Alabama and had just four hits against the Jaguars. With the loss Auburn finished the regular season just 7-7 in midweek games, including the win over Alabama at the Capital City Classic in Montgomery.
"We've been through it all year," Auburn Coach John Pawlowski said about the struggles in non-conference games. "This team has been very resilient. They haven't flinched. We continue to keep moving forward and that's what we've been doing all year. We've stubbed our toes many times throughout the course of the year, but this group of players is focused and locked in. They know what we've got to do."
Because of that this weekend's games in Knoxville aren't just important for the SEC race, but for the NCAA one as well. Teams must now finish over .500 in the regular season to be eligible for a NCAA Regional. That means two wins over Tennessee and Auburn is in the clear no matter what happens next week in Hoover at the SEC Tournament. If the Tigers don't win at least two this weekend it would make for a sticky situation as far as the post season goes.
"When it's all said and done you've got to be one game over .500," Pawlowski said. "We certainly know that. We've put ourselves in a position where we don't have much margin for error at this point and time. The team is aware of it, the coaches and players, everybody is aware of it. First and foremost we're going up there this weekend trying to win some ballgames in Knoxville."
That starts at home in the Southeastern Conference. With Auburn, Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi State all 13-14, Ole Miss at 12-15, and LSU at 11-16, the entire division is still alive in the race for the title. Alabama faces South Carolina in Tuscaloosa while the Razorbacks and Rebels square off in Fayetteville. Mississippi State is trying to knock LSU out of the race as they play in Starkville.
Struggling mightily this season, the Vols have been blasted to the tune of 192-71 in conference games in 2011. That includes being outscored 110-30 on a current 11-game losing streak in SEC play.
Even with all the bad numbers they do have a pitching staff capable of doing some damage led by starter Steven Gruver. In 13 starts he's 4-7, but has an ERA of just 4.08 and has two complete games to his credit. As a team Tennessee has an earned run average of 5.28.
At the plate the Vols are hitting just .273 as a team with only three players hitting over .300 led by Khayyan Norfolk. Starting all 51 games he is hitting .339 with four home runs, 14 doubles and 28 stolen bases. The power comes from Matt Duffy, who has six home runs and 37 RBI along with a .309 average.
Pawlowski said while Tennessee hasn't been very good this season he expects nothing but the best from the Vols this weekend, but it's more about Auburn than the Vols.
"We expect that we're going to have a great challenge on our hands," Pawlowski said. "I'll talk to the team about it tonight when we practice, but it's not so much about what Tennessee is going to bring to the table, but it's about what the Auburn Tigers bring to the table. We've won five out of our last six conference series and played pretty well. We've done so many positive things. We've kept a lot of focus on our team and what we need to do to get better and play well in the conference. This team seems to play better at a higher level on the weekends. It has been like that the whole year. I expect we'll go out there and we'll compete and try to win it."
Auburn's pitching rotation will stay the same this week despite the Tigers being bumped up two days because of last Friday's rainout and the games this week being played on Thursday-Saturday. Pawlowski said Jon Luke Jacobs and Derek Varnadore will go the first two days with Saturday listed as TBA for the Tigers.
"We'll throw real short bullpens to cut the amount of throwing down these guys get done in between starts," Pawlowski said. "Everybody in the league is faced with that scenario. The only difference we have is that we didn't play until Saturday. We just have to really monitor our throwing and the amount of work we do in between starts."
Game times for the weekend series at Tennessee are scheduled for 5 p.m. on both Thursday and Friday and 1 p.m. on Saturday. All times are central.