Auburn, Ala.--Don’t tell Auburn baseball coach Butch Thompson that there is nothing left to play for this season. Even though the Tigers are 18-23 overall and just 5-13 in SEC play, there is still plenty left on the table for this, his first team on the Plains.
With a berth in the SEC Tournament in Hoover still a distinct possibility as the Tigers take on Kentucky (26-15, 10-8) this weekend in a three-game series at Plainsman Park, Thompson said right now the focus is on effort, pride and fighting until the end.
“I think we have to finish,” Thompson said. “I really believed in that statement that we would grow and get better and improve. I would like to see that and I won’t give up on that. I think we’re half a game out of the tournament and anybody that thinks we have nothing to play for, it’s just really a mindless statement in my opinion. It’s somebody that’s not connected to the program. It’s somebody that’s judgmental. It’s somebody that’s not all in.
“I want our players to be all in," Thompson added. "I think we’re playing for something every day. I think our players, right now, going out on the field is making a difference for the program we’re building not only for now but so much for the future. The fans that show up and watch Auburn play mean everything to us right now. It’s important that when I look somebody in the eye right now that’s in our park they care about Auburn baseball.
“This coaching staff and our players, I’ve made fully aware this week, this is really about Auburn baseball right now. Get over our current feelings, it should have nothing to do with what we’re doing right now. We’ve made some statements that we can follow through on. We can still get in the tournament and if we get in the tournament that gives us another collection of pitches that we get an opportunity to play with. As long as we have a pitch to play for we’re going to continue to play as hard as we can.”
Thompson has seen the importance of doing things the right way right until the bitter end and he doesn’t have to look back too far to see how things paid off. In 2010 while at Mississippi State as the pitching coach, Thompson was part of a team that finished the season 23-33 overall and just 6-24 in league play. Winning just one of its last 12 conference games as they limped to the finish, the Bulldogs went through growing pains that season.
Improving to 14-16 in the league the next year, making a regional in year three, Mississippi State advanced to the championship at the College World Series in year four with many of those same players, including pitcher Kendall Graveman.
With this Auburn team struggling in just about every area, Thompson said the improvements have to start by doing the little things well. In baseball that means catching and throwing on defense. Far too often the easy plays have become problems for the Tigers and lead to big innings for the opposition. Auburn is 6-2 in games when the Tigers don’t commit an error, including winning six in a row. Thompson said that will continue to be a focal point for the coaches and players throughout the rest of the season, but in the end it comes down to the team just making plays.
“I see a routineness in nature and the guys pushing and trying,” Thompson said. “I think that’s a tougher component to potentially teach. We’re attacking it from reps, we’re attacking it from a drill standpoint. That’s really how I know how to attack it is to continue to work through it. I don’t think this is the first time this has ever happened in the game of baseball, but I don’t think there’s something you mechanically go to.
“I think ours and the current nature is a little bit more from the mental side," he added. "It’s more of picking them up and staying with them, but also trying to work really hard and address it right on. It’s just something we have to work through and we will.”
Casey Mize is a freshman pitcher for the Tigers who has performed well in recent outings.
This weekend Auburn will once again have a challenge with Kentucky coming to town. The Tigers will send junior Cole Lipscomb (1-3, 5.94 ERA) to the mound on Friday looking to get the series started off right with senior Justin Camp (3-3, 3.47) taking the hill on Saturday. Auburn will be TBA on Sunday with freshman Casey Mize expected to get the start if he doesn’t pitch in either of the first two games.
Kentucky will counter with junior RHP Zack Brown (2-7, 5.25) on Friday, senior RHP Dustin Beggs (7-1, 2.30) on Saturday and senior RHP Kyle Cody (4-2, 4.28) on Sunday. Game times are scheduled for 6 p.m. CDT on Friday and Saturday and 1 p.m. on Sunday.
Auburn junior left fielder Josh Palacios continues to be bothered by a sprained wrist suffered against Missouri three weeks ago. Missing the last 11 games overall and eight in SEC play, Palacios is still doubtful as the Tigers head into the weekend, but he will be on the 27-man roster in case he’s able to go.
Getting Palacios back would be a huge boost for Auburn’s offense considering he’s batting .408 this season overall and .422 in SEC play with three home runs and 10 RBI in 10 games. Since the start of the Missouri series when he played just the first game, Auburn’s team batting average has gone from .322 to .308.
His absence has had a dramatic impact on Anfernee Grier. Batting .427 heading into the series at Missouri, Grier’s average is down to .389 as the Tigers prepare for Kentucky. First baseman Niko Buentello’s average has plummeted as well, going from .364 to .333 in just 11 games.