Jealousy Means AU Has Work To Do

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about this week's Southeastern Conference baseball tournament.

Auburn baseball coach Steve Renfroe is convinced his team has done enough to assure itself an NCAA regional bid, regardless of what happens in this week's Southeastern Conference tournament.

For sure, the youthful Tigers showed plenty of grit down the stretch, winning six of their last nine SEC games and seven of their last 10 overall. They climbed from eighth to a tie for fifth with Georgia in the overall SEC standings. But my belief is that they still need to make at least a decent showing in the SEC tournament to avoid being nervous on selection day next Monday.

There are good reasons for Auburn to be in. Among them:

*One of the nation's tougher schedules, including a three-game series at No. 1 Clemson, two games against Georgia Tech and two against South Alabama, both nationally ranked. The Tigers swept North Carolina, ranked in the top 10 in some polls, at home.

*A fifth-place finish in the SEC, which normally means your regional ticket has been punched.

*Though they didn't win a series from any of the SEC's top four (they didn't play South Carolina), the Tigers have wins over LSU and Florida. They had at least one win over every SEC team they played except Alabama.

*Their RPI has been hovering around No. 20, though it will probably drop a bit because of the series loss at Arkansas.

It would certainly be a travesty if Auburn were left out, but travesties have happened before in the NCAA selection process. There is a lot of jealousy toward the SEC out there. I'm sure a lot of people weren't happy when the SEC got eight teams in last year.

The problem is, particularly in baseball, the selection committee changes its guidelines from year to year, based on who the members happen to be. Who knows what it will be this year? Auburn can take care of that by winning a game or two in the SEC tournament, a task that has not been easy in recent years. The Tigers are on a six-game losing streak in the tournament. They lost twice to Arkansas when they needed just one win to get into the final in 1999. They lost to Florida and South Carolina in 2000 and to Georgia and South Carolina last year.

Regardless of what happens in the days ahead, the future seems very bright for this Auburn baseball team. Senior catcher Trent Pratt, a senior, is the player who can't return next season. The pitching staff can return intact. But there is still much to be done this season. Renfroe has said all along that his team could be very dangerous if it could get into a regional. It's almost there.

REBELS FOLD DOWN STRETCH

There may never have been a bigger collapse in SEC baseball. Ole Miss lost its last seven straight games and 10 of its last 12 to fall all the way from second to last in the SEC West and out of the tournament field. The Rebels have an impressive 37-19 overall record, but it won't matter. Ninth place in the SEC won't get you in a regional.

It was a wild final weekend in the SEC. How wild? By beating Arkansas on Saturday, Auburn claimed the No. 5 tournament seed. Had the Tigers lost that game, they would have finished ninth and out of the tournament field.

QUESTIONABLE RULE

After sweeping Alabama out of Baton Rouge over the weekend, LSU finished second to the Tide in the West by half a game. They each have 10 losses, but LSU has one fewer win. The Bayou Bengals played Mississippi State just twice in Baton Rouge because the third game was rained out.

We'll never know if they would have beaten Mississippi State, but if they had, they would have shared the West Division championship and been the No. 2 seed in the tournament. On the other hand, if Mississippi State had won, it would have finished the regular season with a 15-15 record. That could be the difference in getting into a regional or not.

Such an outcome would never be tolerated in football or basketball, but baseball has yet to gain that kind of respect among those who make decisions in the SEC office. Though it didn't happen this season, Sunday games have often been cut short, played on a time limit because of the visiting team's travel schedule.

LSU wasn't the only team to lose an opportunity because of rained out games. Arkansas had two scheduled games with Vanderbilt, games it would have been expected to win, rained out. Had those games been played and Arkansas won, it would have meant a three-place jump in the final standings. Why not stay an extra day and play on Monday in case of rain? Don't give me the argument that it would mean players would miss class. That doesn't seem to be a problem in basketball or several other sports. Baseball deserves better.


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