Tigers Have A Chance For A Big Finish

Columnist Phillip Marshall looks at Auburn and SEC baseball going into the final weekend of regular season play.

A season that looked so bleak two weeks ago could be on the verge of being something special. And it could still have a bleak ending.

After being swept at Alabama, losing heartbreakers the first two days, Auburn's baseball team was 9-12 in the SEC and its hold on even a spot in the SEC Tournament seemed to be tenuous. Now, as the Tigers approach the final series of the regular season at Arkansas, the SEC Tournament is all but a given. The only way they wouldn't get into the field at the Hoover Met is if they were swept at Arkansas and Mississippi State swept Ole Miss at home. Neither is likely.

Auburn can look now to bigger things.

Head coach Steve Renfroe says he believes one more win, assuring no worse than a 15-15 SEC record, should be good enough to get his team in an NCAA regional. Auburn's RPI was No. 22 last week and should be higher this week after last weekend's series win over Georgia. That sounds good enough. It probably should be good enough for a team that has also played three games against Clemson, the nation's No. 1 team, and others against nationally ranked teams Georgia Tech, North Carolina and South Alabama.

But will it be? I don't think so. The NCAA selection committee is notorious for doing things one way one year and another the next. It's a safe assumption that a lot of conferences around the country didn't think much of the SEC getting eight teams in the field last season. My gut feeling is the league won't get eight this time around. Seven might be a more likely number.

With a 15-15 finish, Auburn might have to make a strong showing in the SEC Tournament to earn a bid. On the other hand, two wins at Arkansas would probably make it just about certain. A winning record in the SEC has been pretty much an automatic ticket to a regional in recent seasons.

Much remains to be decided in the final weekend of SEC play. Mathematically, Auburn could finish as high as second in the West and fourth overall. For that to happen, the Tigers would have to sweep Arkansas on the road (not likely), Alabama would have to sweep LSU on the road (even more unlikely), Ole Miss would have to lose one at Mississippi State (probable) and Georgia would have to lose one at home to South Carolina (probable).

A more realistic goal would be to pass Ole Miss and Georgia and finish fifth overall. Auburn can do that by winning one more next weekend than do Ole Miss and Georgia. The Tigers are currently tied with Ole Miss for fourth in the West at 14-13, but Ole Miss has the tiebreaker edge because of its series win over Auburn in Oxford. Georgia is a game ahead at 15-12, but Auburn needs only to tie the Bulldogs because of its series win last weekend.

The Tigers' first order of business, of course, is to win a game over Arkansas. That would assure them of no worse than the No. 7 seed in Birmingham, with the No. 8 seed going to Arkansas or Mississippi State.

To get to this point, Auburn won five of six pulsating games over the last two weekends. I don't know of any records that are kept on such things, but playing six one-run games and winning five of them on the last at-bat and four on walk-off hits must not have happened many times before, if ever. Saturday's 10-9 loss to Georgia was a big disappointment, but when you play six straight games to the wire and win five of them, you have to feel pretty good.

If Auburn is to continue its run into the postseason, something positive needs to happen in the starting rotation. Levale Speigner, Colby Paxton and Eric Brandon have struggled to get deep into games in recent weeks. Believed to be the strength of the team coming into the season, starting pitching now seems to be the biggest trouble spot.

The bullpen, victimized in the sweep at Alabama, has gotten a boost from freshmen Arnold Hughey and Steven Register. Hughey baffled Georgia in the late innings Sunday, retiring 12 in a row at one point. Register, who struck out the side to end Friday's game, struck out the only two he faced on Sunday. Amazingly, he was the winning pitcher in four of those five Auburn wins.

Elsewhere, Alabama is one win or one South Carolina loss from winning the overall SEC championship. After missing out on the SEC Tournament last season, the Tide came into this season on a mission. They'll will be the host of a regional and probably a super regional. They earned that right by sweeping four of five SEC home series and losing just twice at home all season. South Carolina and LSU are also likely to be chosen as regional hosts. Florida also has a chance to be chosen.

Auburn, with its freshman-laden lineup, has put itself in position to do something memorable. Whether it will happen or not will largely be decided on the artificial turf in Fayetteville.

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