Marshall: Tigers Showing Signs of Progress

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about the Auburn baseball Tigers.

Quietly, almost unnoticed, Auburn's baseball team has squeezed back into the race for a spot in the Southeastern Conference Tournament at the halfway point of the league schedule.

It's been a long, hard road for Tom Slater's second Tiger team. There were maddening early series losses to VMI, Elon and Birmingham-Southern. And then there was a 1-5 start in SEC play.

But Slater said all along that his team, with freshmen playing pivotal roles, was competing hard, working hard and would get better.

And it has.

When the Tigers beat Mississippi State 7-3 Sunday, they won their second SEC series in their last three, both over nationally ranked teams.

The Tigers' records of 18-21 overall and 6-9 in SEC play still aren't much to brag about, but since that 1-5 start, they are 5-4 in SEC play and are tied for eighth in the overall standings. The top eight teams advance to Hoover Metropolitan Stadium for the SEC Tournament.

You'll not hear Slater make excuses and you'll not hear him bash players. That's not his way. But if he wanted to make excuses, he'd have some to make.

Two pitchers who could have made a difference--right-hander Cliff Mullins and left-hander Josh Blake--will not pitch this season because of injuries. Freshman Luke Greinke, who had emerged as a dominant closer and was moving toward a starting role, suffered a strained deltoid and has pitched little since. Junior Chris Dennis, the only starter with significant SEC experience, has fought through a variety of ailments.

The junior and senior classes Slater inherited are short on the kind of talent it takes to be a contender in the SEC. The pitching staff has some talented young guys, but it has precious little experience.

Through it all, Slater, his staff and his players have stayed quiet and kept right on working. The season has not been without positives.

*Third baseman Mike Bianucci has been perhaps the most impressive freshman hitter I've seen at Auburn, more impressive even than Gabe Gross as a freshman.

*Freshman Evan Crawford, though he struggled in Saturday's loss to Mississippi State, has emerged as a future star.

*Greinke, since replacing Bruce Edwards as the starting centerfielder, has proved to be a savvy player who can beat you in a lot of ways.

*Senior second baseman Tyler Johnstone has played like a senior should and has been a steady and reliable leadoff man.

*Junior first baseman Andy Bennett, a transfer from Miami, has shown himself to be a tough, hard-nosed player who is at his best with runners on base in front of him.

*Freshman Paul Burnside has been dominant out of the bullpen of late and could push for a spot in the starting rotation.

Paul Burnside is congratulated after a good outing on the mound.

*Junior Johnny Thompson, though he didn't have a good game Saturday, has been a reliable late-inning reliever since Greinke's injury.

*Dennis and Peter Wiggins came back from struggles to have dominating performances in Sunday's victory.

With a second consecutive strong recruiting class already in hand, Slater has his program moving in the right direction. Are they moving fast enough to actually make it into the SEC Tournament? With three of their final five series on the road, probably not.

The Tigers have improved to the point that they are and will be hard to beat at Plainsman Park. They have not shown they are ready to win consistently on the road. They lost 10 straight away from Plainsman Park before beating Ole Miss in Oxford last weekend, and they were blown out twice in that series.

Just how much of a chance they have of making any noise beyond the final regular-season game will hinge on what happens the next two weekends--trips to Florida and Alabama.

If the Tigers can win three of those six games, they'll be in the race to the end. If they can win two, they'll probably still have some hope but it'll be a long shot. Win fewer than two, and their hope will probably be all but gone.

It's been a trying baseball season at a school that isn't accustomed to trying baseball seasons. Auburn has been to NCAA regionals eight of the last nine seasons and 10 of the last 12. It hasn't had an overall losing record since 1983.

Regardless of what happens down the stretch, things are moving in the right direction. Painful though it may be, this season's struggle was predictable.

But better days are ahead.

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