Most coaches shy away from putting too much pressure on their teams during the season, but that’s not a concern for Auburn Coach Sunny Golloway with his Tigers in 2015. Each of the last two weekends Auburn has entered a series with a “must-win” tag on it and each weekend the Tigers came through with a series victory, the last a sweep of Georgia.
This weekend Auburn travels to South Carolina to face a Gamecocks’ squad that is struggling. USC has dropped eight of its last 11 games, but it’s also a program Auburn hasn’t beaten in a series since 1997. The Tigers have a record of just 9-38 since that time.
With a record of 30-16 overall and 10-11 in the SEC, Auburn enters as one of the hottest teams in the league with nine wins in its last 10 games. During that stretch the Tigers have a 1.90 ERA, a team batting average of .295 and a fielding percentage of .987 with only five errors. Those are the types of numbers that give a team confidence and Golloway said it’s another chance for his team to step up.
“I think our guys wouldn’t shy away from the fact this is a must-win for us because we’re going to go in there and then we’re going to turn around and have our archrival series,” Golloway said of facing Alabama next weekend. “You don’t want to stumble into that and we’ve got finals next week. Us going two out of three is really important. I think it’s real important.
"I won’t say that it’s do or die, but it’s a must situation for us," the coach added. "We need to go down there and take two out of three, play well and win the series, then be able to take a week off and then we play the school from the north and keep our momentum going.”
Auburn’s pitching has been a key during the nine-win stretch and the Tigers will once again have to do it this weekend without ace Keegan Thompson. Out at least another week to rest a sore arm, Thompson’s spot will be taken again by junior Dalton Rentz (3-1, 2.51 ERA) as he will be on the mound Sunday for the Tigers. Cole Lipscomb (6-1, 2.24) will take on South Carolina’s Jack Wynkoop (6-4, 2.71) on Friday night with Rocky McCord (4-3, 3.58) on the mound for Saturday’s game. The Gamecocks are listed as to be announced for the final two games of the series.
As the weather has warmed so has the hitting of Auburn first baseman Daniel Robert.
With an offense that has been struggling, hitting just .254 this season, South Carolina will have to count on its pitching staff to hold an Auburn offense that has gained confidence with production coming from up and down the lineup. Raising his average to .317 after going 15-30 in the last 10 games with 12 RBI, first baseman Daniel Robert is proving the punch in the middle of the lineup for the Tigers that had been missing the first half of the season.
Part of the reason for that has been the struggles of junior outfielder Jordan Ebert. Being counted on to provide a big part of the offense coming into the year, Ebert is hitting just .240, but had a pair of hits his last time out. With the Gamecocks throwing a left-hander in the series opener it’s an opportunity for Ebert to get back in the lineup again this weekend. While his hits and opportunities have been few and far between in recent weeks, Ebert said as long as the team keeps winning he’ll just try to do his part.
“Oh man, it’s frustrating and the best part about it is that we’re winning,” Ebert said. “It makes it a lot easier on me. If I’m not helping our team win and we’re losing it’s a lot tougher for me having to go home and go to sleep when we we’re losing games. It takes a lot of the pressure off of me because I was blaming myself for a lot of our early losses and it’s been a tough year for me.
"Hopefully, I can get hot at the right time and go somewhere we’ve never been,” added Ebert, who was the 2014 SEC batting champion.
The Tigers will be counting on Dalton Rentz to step up on the mound again this weekend.
Just trying to find his role for the 2015 Tigers, Ebert’s major goal is winning, something this Auburn team is finding out how to do. With the SEC Tournament and NCAA Tournament within their grasp, Ebert said this group of Tigers has what it takes to make a run and he’s ready to see what the rest of the season holds.
“I tell you this, this is a different team,” Ebert said. “I’ve been here a long time and I don’t know what, in my opinion it could have been the Ole Miss game, the 14-0 game, but ever since then I think everybody is starting to believe. For a team to believe especially a young team like this, it speaks wonders. We’re not worried about, we’re not nervous about South Carolina.
“We know they are a good team, we know what they’ve done in the past. I think our expectations for ourselves are a little bit higher than they’ve ever been since I’ve been here. Our hopes aren’t getting into the SEC tournament, our hopes are for regional. We want to go to Omaha. A lot of people were laughing when we had it on our back, but it was the ultimate goal. I’m glad we’re giving the Auburn faithful a chance.”
Game times for the weekend series are 6 p.m. CDT on Friday (SEC Network+), 2:30 p.m. on Saturday (SEC Network) and 1 p.m. on Sunday (ESPNU).