NCAA Bid Possible But Not Likely For Tigers

Phillip Marshall writes about the disappointing 2004 Auburn baseball season.

Believe it or not, Auburn's baseball season might not be over.

Though the odds got a little longer when the Tigers lost to Arkansas on Sunday and Mississippi State took ninth place in the standings by finishing a sweep of Alabama, there will be 10 Southeastern Conference teams on the board when the NCAA selection committee begins its deliberations.

Auburn (32-24 and 12-18) and Mississippi State (34-22 and 13-17) will sit out this week's SEC Tournament but will be considered for at-large bids for NCAA regionals. In a year in which there aren't a lot of powerful teams nationwide, either or both could squeeze into the field.

Just how good are the chances? It's hard to say.

Despite missing the SEC Tournament, Florida got in last year with 13 SEC wins and a No. 32 RPI, but the situation was different. Vanderbilt was in the SEC Tournament last season with an overall losing record and did not go to a regional. This season, all eight teams in the tournament are virtually certain to be invited to regionals.

Steve Renfroe There are ample reasons Auburn should be sacking up the bats--a 12-18 SEC record, a 4-12 record down the stretch in SEC games, an 0-5 record in SEC series at home. Simply put, Auburn does not have the look of a postseason team.

But there are some reasons for the Tigers to be considered, too. They are 14-14 against top 25 teams. In the SEC, only Tennessee has played more games ranked teams, going 12-18. They won a game apiece in series with regular-season co-champions Georgia and Arkansas. They won two of three at Ole Miss, which finished a game out of first, and won two of three at Clemson. They won three of five SEC road series. Their RPI was No. 21 after last weekend and probably won't be a lot lower than that this week.

One thing to remember about baseball is the margin of victory makes no difference. As much as blowout losses irritate fans, Auburn's 15-3 loss at Arkansas on Sunday will carry no more weight than if it had been 2-1. Also, midweek losses like the one to Mercer last week don't carry a lot of weight when they come during the conference season.

The fate of Auburn and Mississippi State probably won't be decided until late Sunday, when the committee is down to the last handful of at-large bids. Though Mississippi State's RPI won't be as strong as Auburn's, it would seem fair that the Bulldogs will have an edge because of finishing a spot higher in the standings and winning two of three at Plainsman Park.

My guess is that Auburn will miss postseason play for the first time since 1996, but that's not a foregone conclusion.

Whether the Tigers make it in or not, this season has been a major disappointment. They were picked to finish second in the West. Coach Steve Renfroe said before the season he had his most talented team.

The loss of first baseman Karl Amonite certainly was a big blow. No, it wasn't a big enough blow to be the difference between winning a championship and going 12-18. But had Amonite been healthy, it's a pretty safe bet that he would have made a difference in enough games that Auburn would be preparing for the SEC Tournament today.

Renfroe is taking a lot of heat, but SEC baseball these days is a roller-coaster ride.

A year ago, when Auburn was 18-12 in the SEC and the No. 4 national seed, Arkansas was 14-16 and finished fifth in the West. Georgia was 10-20 and fifth in the East. Today, those two teams are getting ready to order championship rings. The difference between the penthouse and the outhouse in the SEC is remarkably small.

Sixteen of Auburn's 30 SEC games were decided by two or fewer runs. Auburn won seven of those and lost nine. Reverse that figure, and the Tigers are in the SEC Tournament and locked into an NCAA regional. It's that close.

There's no question Renfroe needs to take a hard look at his program. It is imperative that he hire the best pitching coach available and recruit well.

Despite struggles at the plate this season, Renfroe's track record says he's one of the top hitting coaches in the college game. He is viewed that way by professional scouts. Since a puzzling 0-9 start to his SEC career in 2001 when everything that could go wrong did go wrong, he was 48-33 in SEC games going into this season.

This season has been a bad one. It is not and should not be what Auburn administrators or supporters want. But a little history might be informative. In 1995, the Tigers won 50 games for the first time in school history and narrowly missed a second consecutive trip to the College World Series. In 1996, they had a losing SEC record and missed postseason play. There was plenty of grumbling about head coach Hal Baird. In 1997, they went back to the College World Series.

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