Loss In SEC Tournament Could Cost Tigers

Columnist Phillip Marshall analyzes the Auburn baseball Tigers as a postseason team.

Hoover, Ala.--On the surface, Auburn's 7-5 loss Friday in the Southeastern Conference Tournament to Alabama doesn't seem particularly important. After all, the Tigers are safely in the NCAA Tournament. They are likely to be chosen to host a regional next weekend. But look a little deeper and it might be quite costly, especially if the Tigers don't bounce back in Saturday morning's elimination game against South Carolina.

Had they won, they might well have been one win away from being chosen to also be a host for a super regional if they won their regional next weekend. That would mean the opportunity to earn a spot in the College World Series without ever leaving home. It could still happen, but it would probably take a win over South Carolina and two wins over Alabama. Strangely enough, who wins the tournament championship will be irrelevant. Regional sites will be announced at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, an hour and a half before the championship game's first pitch.

Regardless of what impact it has on regionals, Friday's loss was a painful one. The Tigers had it in control with a 5-3 lead in the eighth, but some good Alabama at-bats and some poor Auburn defense turned the game. Alabama continued a remarkable tournament tradition. In the previous five times the Tide has played in the tournament at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, it has won it three times and been to the semi-finals the other two. It's in the semi-finals again and should end up in the championship game again, despite having lost eight of its last nine regular-season games.

To my less-than-expert eyes and ears, the capacity crowd was pretty much evenly split between Auburn and Alabama. The Tigers had a chance to hit a lick for their fans and didn't get it done. An ill-conceived dive for a line drive by left fielder Sean Gamble and a third strike that squirted past catcher Bobby Huddleston opened the door for Alabama.

The Tigers have had an outstanding season, but getting to Omaha to play for a national championship might be a long shot. The loss of catcher/designated hitter Josh Bell changed a lot of things. First, there is a hole in the lineup where there wasn't before. Huddleston, who is playing on a painfully injured ankle, is going to have a hard time catching every game. There is little firepower on the bench.

Perhaps the biggest problem--and it is not a new one--is that there no dominant No. 1 starting pitcher. The Tigers have a deep pitching staff, but they don't have a starter who inspires the belief that it's an automatic anytime he is one the mound.

On the positive side, Karl Amonite had a pair of hits Friday night. Except for his home run last weekend against Ole Miss, he had done little in his previous seven games against SEC teams. If he can regain the form that once made him the hottest hitter in the league, it would go a long way toward solving some offensive problems.

Regardless of what happens from here on out, Renfroe deserves credit for steadily building his program. With a break here or there, the Tigers could have won the regular-season SEC championship. Any year that ends with a regional tournament at Plainsman Park has to be considered a success. The future is brighter than the past. The Tigers should be among the favorites in the West next season with six position players and most of their pitchers likely to return. The only junior that seems likely to be a high draft choice is centerfielder Jovan Moran. Barring an unexpected turn of events, he'll be gone. That's jumping ahead. This season is far from over, but if the Tigers are to make a run for the College World Series, they can't afford the kind of lapses that let Alabama escape with a victory Friday night.

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