Crunch Time For Baseball Tigers

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about the Tigers and their attempt to reach the College Baseball World Series.

If you had been hanging around Plainsman Park on Thursday, you'd have seen Auburn coach Steve Renfroe showing Princeton coach Scott Bradley around the place. You'd have seen Hal Baird, the coach turned respected administrator, visiting with Ohio State coach Bob Todd, an old friend.

You'd have seen coaches and players chatting, swapping stories, acting like they were getting together for a big reunion. That's college baseball.

While their counterparts in football and basketball view each other with suspicion and often with downright hostility, baseball coaches compete without making it personal. It's refreshing to be around.

One of the really big weekends in Auburn's baseball history gets underway Friday when No. 2 seed Clemson plays No. 3 Ohio State in the first round of regional play. Auburn and Princeton get together in the night game before what will surely be a capacity crowd, or at least close to it.

The lack of tension in the air Thursday should not be mistaken for lack of resolve. It's crunch time in college baseball. The next two weeks will determine which eight teams go to Omaha for the College World Series. This weekend is a big test for Renfroe's third-year Auburn program. That the Tigers are headed rapidly in the right direction can't be rationally denied. They won 40 games against the nation's toughest schedule and earned a No. 4 national seed. And now they have a chance to do something really special.

Auburn hasn't been to the College World Series since 1997. It has a chance to earn a trip this season without ever leaving the friendly confines of Plainsman Park. No Auburn team has ever had such an opportunity. The 1999 Tigers were hosts for a regional, but they were beaten at Florida State in the super regional. But just because the Tigers don't have to leave home doesn't mean they have an easy path. Clemson is 38-20 and, at times this season, looked like a national championship contender. At times it didn't. Who knows which team will show up this weekend? Ohio State is 41-15 and is good enough to make some noise. Princeton, for one game, has the pitching to be very dangerous.

Shortstop Chuck Jeroloman and the Tigers hope to advance to the Super Regional from this weekend's double elimination tournament at Plainsman Park.

Get through this weekend, and the probable opponent next weekend is Big 12 champion Nebraska. And any team that wins the Big 12 is going to be a load. Renfroe has gotten his team to this point without a dominating No. 1 pitcher and without a fearsome batting order. Every time the Tigers have seemed ready to go in the wrong direction, they have righted themselves and moved on.

Last Saturday's 13-3 loss to Alabama in the SEC Tournament stirred a lot of emotions, but it clearly had no impact on the NCAA selection committee. The Tigers had already made their case. Renfroe has made his case, too. Since that maddening nine-game losing streak to start his first SEC season, Renfroe has gone 48-33 in SEC play. Under Renfroe, the Tigers have won two of the three series they've played against Alabama. They knocked off LSU in Baton Rouge on Skip Bertman's final regular season series as head coach to complete the greatest rebound in SEC history--from 0-9 to the NCAA Tournament. They won seven of 10 SEC series this season, second only to league champion LSU. And now they have earned a No. 4 national seed.

Such exalted status doesn't come free. It brings with it an immense amount of pressure. When the NCAA committee says you are the No. 4 seed, it is saying you are supposed to finish your season in Omaha That journey starts tonight against Princeton. Is Auburn good enough? Is it better than Clemson? Is it better than Nebraska? That will be settled on the field. If a lofty seed meant an automatic trip to Omaha, there'd be no reason to play the tournament.

Renfroe went against the advice of many close to him when he took on this season's schedule. It paid off last Monday when Auburn's name came on the television screen just behind Florida State, LSU and Georgia Tech. Now the real fun begins.

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