After losing close games to Alabama on Saturday and Sunday in their final weekend series, the Tigers were left squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Their RPI and strength of schedule were so strong that it seemed they would be in. But a 13-17 Southeastern Conference record and missing out on the league tournament raised questions.
Every widely circulated projection had the Tigers in the field of 64. But did the people who did those projections have good information?
Nobody knew for sure.
Underdogs had won four tournaments and claimed automatic bids in smaller conferences, reducing the number of at-large bids available. Slater greeted a visitor to his office Monday morning. He had been told, he said, that his team had been chosen by the NCAA selection committee, but he wasn't going to tell the players until he knew for sure. They would learn their fate when the selections were announced on ESPN.
Finally, somewhere around 10:45 a.m., the happy news showed on the screen. Auburn would go to Dick Howser Stadium at Florida State as the No. 2 seed. There were cheers and high fives. Slater, standing in the back of the players' locker room, just smiled.
There is, no doubt, much unhappiness in some places that the SEC got nine teams into the tournament for the second straight year. Teams like Cal, who was 13-11 in the Pac-10, are probably wondering how they could be left out and Auburn and Arkansas could get in with 13-17 SEC records.
Rightly or wrongly, whether selection committee members admit it or not, it's mostly about RPI. Auburn finished at No. 19, fourth best among SEC schools. No one can remember any team with an RPI in the Top 20 being left out.
Slater speculated that, without that nonconference schedule, Auburn's RPI would have been in the 20s and its case not as strong. He is surely right about that.
The benefits of that schedule didn't stop with being invited into the field. Alabama finished 17-13 in the league but played a weak non-conference schedule, mostly at home. The Tide's RPI was No. 30, eighth best in the SEC. The result is a trip to New Orleans to play in the regional with Tulane, the No. 1 national seed. Florida State, on the other hand, was considered on the borderline between being a No. 1 seed and a No. 2.
The moral to this story is simple: Playing a strong nonconference schedule matters. It mattered a lot for Slater's first Auburn team.
Considering the situation with which he was left, Slater did a terrific job in his first season. The difference between success and failure is so small in SEC baseball. Had it not been for a wild throw in the ninth inning at South Carolina or three infield hits by Alabama in the sixth inning Sunday, Auburn would have been in the SEC Tournament and clearly in the NCAA Tournament. At the same time, had it not been for a spectacular catch by Ben Sprague to lock up a victory against Ole Miss, Auburn might have been clearly out.
The Tigers played with passion all season. They did everything Slater and his staff asked them to do. The regional bid made it a decent season. But there is an opportunity now to make it something better.
Outfielder Clete Thomas, who is hitting .327 with homers, 37 RBI and 21 stolen bases, is a key member of the 2005 team.
Can the Tigers win in Tallahassee? Sure they can, but things have to fall their way. They can't afford to fall into the losers' bracket. It only takes three games to win the regional without a loss. It takes five games if a team is coming out of the losers' bracket, and there isn't enough pitching depth to have a realistic shot at pulling that off.
Should the Tigers make that happen, they would move on to a best-of-three series in a super regional, probably against Florida. Having been swept at home by the Gators, they would be substantial underdogs again. "These kids aren't going to be afraid," Slater said as the time for the announcement neared. "Even if we were playing the No. 1 national seed, it's just more of what we've been doing for 10 weeks. In the SEC, we have to do it every weekend."
When Auburn is eliminated, it will almost certainly be the end of the college careers of pitchers Josh Sullivan and Michael Nix, catcher Josh Bell and outfielder Clete Thomas, all juniors who are expected to be chosen in the Major League draft. It will be the end, too, for pitchers John Madden and Arnold Hughey, first baseman Karl Amonite and for Sprague.
Slater will have a massive building job to do next season, but he wasn't thinking about that on a joyful Memorial Day. The Tigers were going to the big show. And that was cause for celebration.