A Tournament Time Look At The Baseball Tigers

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about the Auburn baseball team as the Tigers prepare for NCAA Tournament play.

The email runneth over. After Auburn's 13-3 loss to Alabama in the Southeastern Conference tournament on Saturday, a lot of folks obviously needed to vent their frustration.

I never divulge names on emails because they aren't verified, but I will respond as best I can to some of the questions asked and points made. By far the most frequent question asked was why Levale Speigner didn't pitch against Alabama on Saturday. The plan was to start Cory Dueitt, replace him with Eric Brandon and close with Speigner. Things went awry when Brandon was way off his game. Looking ahead to the regional, Auburn's coaches were not going to pitch Speigner for a long time. When Brandon went out before it was time for Speigner, only down-the-line pitchers were available. Teams win tournaments when players like those rise to another level. Jeremy Norris, who'd worked just nine total innings against SEC teams, did it for Alabama on Sunday. It didn't happen for Auburn. Josh Sullivan, Lee Carter and Jim Miksis were ineffective. When the game got out of hand, there was no reason to go to Speigner.

A lot of people were upset by the margin of victory. That is applying football thinking to baseball. The worst team might blow out the best team in baseball. Margin of victory means little or nothing.

Some of the sillier emails claimed that Auburn coach Steve Renfroe quit on his team. Please. He had a plan, but it didn't work. He said after the game that he left himself in a bind by the way he used his pitchers in the Friday game against Alabama. To say he quit is absurd. Even if Auburn had won, it was not going to win the tournament from the loser's bracket. In case anyone didn't notice, the same thing happened to Mississippi State in the next game.

There seems to be a lot of frustration among people who believe Renfroe didn't take the tournament seriously enough. I'm sure it was very difficult to be an Auburn fan sitting in the stands surrounded by celebrating Alabama fans on Saturday. Renfroe, obviously, wanted to win the tournament. Unless you have remarkable pitching depth, you're not going to do it if you lose one of the first two games.

Steve Renfroe

An old, tired subject also came up. Some people wanted to know why Auburn doesn't hit more home runs. Since the bats were changed a few years back, the college game hasn't been so much about home runs. The SEC Tournament, in the spacious Hoover Met, is certainly not about home runs. Most teams that hit a lot of home runs nowadays play in parks with short fences. College baseball now is more like the game on other levels. It's about pitching, defense and timely hitting. At the same time, I promise you Renfroe would love to have a couple of 20-homer guys. They aren't around every corner.

A few people said they didn't think Auburn players were ready to play in the tournament. I didn't notice anything like that. The players certainly seemed excited about it. I didn't see anybody not playing hard. I'm sure they weren't excited once they were 10 runs behind. Going back to Hal Baird's days, Auburn players don't act like a bunch of little leaguers by running on to the field on every home run and such. Personally, I think that's good. Somebody must have been impressed. Catcher Bobby Huddleston, pitcher Arnold Hughey and centerfielder Javon Moran were named to the all-tournament team.

The tournament was lost in Friday's 7-5 loss to Alabama, not on Saturday. I thought the single most damaging play from Auburn's standpoint was the third strike that got past Huddleston to start the eighth inning. Renfroe and Alabama coach Jim Wells agreed that turned the momentum in Alabama's favor. The pitch was a nasty slider that simply kept going away from Huddleston.

There were actually a couple of emailers who wanted to talk about good things, about 40 wins and earning the right to be a host for a regional. Some pressure comes with that, too. When you are the host and you are the No. 1 seed, as Auburn will be, you are supposed to win and move on to a super regional. The Tigers won't do that if they make some of the mistakes they made in the two losses to Alabama.

On to other things:

*Alabama's domination of the SEC Tournament at the Hoover Met is nothing short of remarkable. The Tide has played in the tournament there six times and won it four times. But this one was the most remarkable of all. Alabama went into the tournament as the No. 7 seed. It barely made the field after losing eight of its last nine games. There was nothing to indicate such a run was coming. In the tournament, the Tide was 4-0 against the league‚s top three teams--LSU, South Carolina and Auburn. During the regular season, it was 2-7 against those same three teams.

Arnold Hughey

*I thought Hughey's performance against South Carolina was as impressive as I've seen by an Auburn pitcher in a big game since Tim Hudson mystified Florida State to send the Tigers to the College World Series in 1997.

*Just what does the SEC Tournament really mean? Every year, I and others speculate that it might mean more than it has in the past. So far, we've been wrong every year. Sunday, I asked Charlie Carr, the NCAA selection committee chairman, if the tournament had any impact on regional site selections. He said it was one of many factors and didn't really answer the question. My take on what he was saying? It had no impact, Perhaps it improved Alabama from a No. 3 seed to a No. 2 seed. Could Auburn have earned a super regional host spot? We'll never know. One thing is for sure: Just as in basketball, the regular season carries far more weight than what happens in a conference tournament.

Until next time...

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