Facing the league's worst team and only needing two wins to finish atop the division and claim the number two seed in the SEC Baseball Tournament in Hoover, Auburn lost two of the three games in the series to the Tennessee Volunteers and now find themselves in a world of trouble heading into the postseason.
Now the number eight seed for the tournament, Auburn must face top seed South Carolina on Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. CDT at the Hoover Metropolitan Stadium. Only needing a win on Saturday to clinch the West, senior Kevin Patterson says the team just didn't get it done as UT rallied to win 4-3.
"That one hurts," Patterson says. "We had a chance to win the series. We had plenty of opportunities to drive in guys early in the game and give ourselves a little cushion. It just didn't happen. It's frustrating."
Currently 29-27 going into the double elimination SEC Tournament, the Tigers must win at least one game in Hoover to be eligible for an NCAA Regional because only teams with winning records can qualify. That means beating either South Carolina or in the second round beating either Vanderbilt or Georgia will be necessary to make NCAA play. None of those options is an easy proposition, but Patterson notes it is now or never for the Tigers.
"We've got to win a game," Patterson says. "We've got to be one game over so we definitely have a must-win at Hoover--no doubt. If we go two and out that will be it for us. We've got to find a way to win a game."
The good news for Auburn is that South Carolina isn't the most imposing team to face offensively and will likely throw a number four or five pitcher on Wednesday to keep its rotation intact for the regionals the next week. Also with a top eight national seed also likely sewn up, the Gamecocks don't have a whole lot to play for in Hoover.
Throw in the fact that the Gamecocks went 0-2 last year in Hoover, including a loss to Auburn, and Auburn's task might not be as daunting as it looks on paper. Patterson contends for this Auburn team the opponent doesn't matter, it's all about answering the bell once again.
"I think back and going into Kentucky I think we were 2-7 in the league," Patterson recalls. "We were at the bottom of the SEC West and we fought back and had a chance to win the west. It just didn't happen. Now we have to keep fighting. That's what we've been doing all year. It hasn't been easy for us all year at any point. We have to keep grinding it out and win on Wednesday."
From being swept three different times in the league to losing a five-run lead in the ninth inning against Georgia to the hearbreaking losses to Alabama and Tennessee the last two weekends, this Auburn team has been challenged time and time again in 2011. The one thing the Tigers have done is continue to battle, Coach John Pawlowski says.
"That's the challenge this team has faced all year," Pawlowski says. "We'll regroup and go up there and guys are going to continue to play hard. Ultimately we're going to fight for a championship in Hoover. We have to play solid baseball and find a way to stick around in that tournament."