At 25-20 overall with a 9-12 record in Southeastern Conference play, the Tigers have nine regular season SEC games remaining to prove they are worthy of an NCAA Regional bid. O'Neal notes that making the NCAA Tournament is something the seniors have talked about trying to make happen before they wrap up their college playing days.
"I know Blake (Austin), Dillon (Ortman) and Jay Wade, we haven't been in the tournament ever and that is one of their big things this year," O'Neal says.
The next opportunity to take a step forward in the SEC race is Friday at 6 p.m. CDT when the Tigers begin a three-game home series at Plainsman Park vs. the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
Auburn has been off since Saturday when O'Neal allowed just two runs and seven hits in eight innings on the mound as the Tigers earned a 2-1 series victory with a 7-2 win over Arkansas in Fayetteville. The seniors says pitching well when the Tigers needed a win felt "pretty great" and adds, "I needed that."
Last season O'Neal threw well for the Tigers in a set role as the Saturday starter for SEC games. He posted an 8-4 record with a 2.74 earned run average. He gave up just 73 hits in 89 innings.
This season five of his 13 appearances have been as a relief pitcher for new head coach Sunny Golloway. "I just did what Coach G said," points out the lefty from Columbus, Ga., who notes that he likes his current role pitching once a week.
"I definitely do feel a lot better now that I know I am going to take the ball on Sunday," he says.
One of the reasons O'Neal had to work to get back in the pitching rotation was an inconsistent beginning to the season. Golloway was calling the lefty's pitches then and did not have a good feel for how O'Neal liked to attack batters.
"Coach G didn't know a lot about me as a pitcher because I?took a lot off in the fall because he didn't want to hurt my arm too much," says O'Neal, who threw more innings than any other Tiger as a junior.
"He called a lot of changeups early in the season and changeups aren't my best pitch," O'Neal points out. "He has kind of let me call my game along with Coach (Scott) Foxhall."
Commenting on O'Neal, Golloway says, "Michael understands when he is down in the (strike) zone and mixing (his pitches) he is really good. We are all starting to figure each other out a bit."
Foxhall, the pitching coach who is more familiar with O'Neal than Golloway, and catcher Austin are working together to help call the pitches for the senior. Golloway notes that looks to be the best thing for the pitcher and the team. "Foxy works really good with O'Neal," the head coach says.
Michael O'Neal is shown in action during his senior season.
O'Neal credits Foxhall with helping him get back into sync. "It finally paid off this last start against Arkansas," says O'Neal, who points out the Tigers are eager to get back on the field and improve their record.
"We are definitely hungry--that is probably the best way to put it," he says. "We know what we have got to do. We know we need to win these last three series to get in. We know we dug ourselves into a little hole. I feel like we can come back now and get after it."
Golloway says he agrees with O'Neal after the Tigers took two of three games at Arkansas and just missed sweeping the series. "If we had not done what we did at Fayetteville, we would really be in trouble," the head coach says. "Right now we are in recovery mode. We can still get there...it is just an important weekend."
Mississippi State will arrive at Plainsman Park with a 28-18 overall record and an 11-10 mark in the SEC. Following Friday's contest game two on Saturday is set for a 6 p.m. start and the finale on Sunday is scheduled for 1 p.m.