Marshall: Postseason Hope for AU Baseball

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about the possibilities for postseason play for the 2006 Auburn baseball team.

That there is even reason to discuss the postseason possibilities for Auburn's baseball team says something about the way players and coaches have pushed on through disappointment and adversity this season.

But in a season that once seemed surely lost, the Tigers have made opportunities for themselves. Since a 1-5 start in SEC play, they have gone 7-5. They have won two consecutive series and three of their last four. Whether they take advantage of those opportunities will be determined over the next four weekends.

The first order of business is finding a way into the SEC Tournament. The Tigers have put themselves in position to control their own destiny. They are alone in eighth place. The top eight teams, of course, advance to the tournament at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium.

Over the weekend, the Tigers answered one of the questions raised here a week ago? Were they ready to go on the road and win a big series? They were. They went to Florida and took two of three.

Next weekend brings a trip to Alabama, clearly the SEC's best team to this point in the season. That will be followed by back-to-back home series against LSU and Georgia and a trip to Arkansas in the finale.

With records of 20-23 overall and 8-10 in the SEC, Auburn is a half game ahead of Tennessee, a game ahead of Georgia and two games ahead of LSU and Florida. It is half a game behind Mississippi State and two games behind Ole Miss, Arkansas and Vanderbilt. Fifth in the West, Auburn is two games out of second and two games out of last.

The Tigers probably need to go 6-6 down the stretch to guarantee getting into the SEC Tournament. They could do that by taking two of three in each of their remaining home series and winning one at Alabama and one at Arkansas.

Getting into a regional is more problematic. The sure way to do that, of course, is to win the SEC Tournament. Barring that, the first order of business is to get the record over .500. And that will not be easy.

That's why even Tuesday night's game against Mercer, the final nonconference game of the season, takes on greater importance than usual. To finish the regular season at 28-28, the Tigers would have to beat Mercer and go 7-5 down the stretch in SEC games. Considering that they've gone 7-5 in their last 12 SEC games, that certainly is possible, though it would probably take sweeping one of the home series or winning one of the road series. But even then, they would have to win three SEC Tournament games to finish above .500, two to finish at .500.

In recent years, getting into the SEC Tournament has been akin to an automatic regional bid. Auburn last season and Florida the previous season got into regionals without even making the SEC Tournament field.

But no SEC team has made it to a regional without a winning overall record. Could it happen? Could Auburn, at just below or just above .500, squeeze into the field? There's no way to know for sure.

Auburn's RPI after last weekend is No. 39. That's ninth best in the SEC. With a strong finish, that will certainly rise. And the RPI is critical. Here's what one former SEC athletic director who served on the committee says:

"They'll talk about a lot of things, but don't pay any attention. Once you get into those meetings you realize it's all about RPI. Strength of schedule is part of it, but the RPI is the No. 1 criteria, and it's not even close."

Here's how SEC teams stack up in the RPI after last weekend: Alabama (2), Arkansas (14), Georgia (15), South Carolina (20), Mississippi State (22), Ole Miss (25), Florida (27), LSU (32), Kentucky (34), Auburn (39), Vanderbilt (46) and Tennessee (90).

Among other Auburn opponents, Florida State is No. 11, Troy is No. 17, Elon is No. 26, Birmingham-Southern is No. 83 and VMI is No. 150, despite a 25-14 record. Clearly, early-season series losses to Birmingham-Southern and VMI are the biggest blight on Auburn's record.

With a strong finish, Auburn's RPI obviously would climb. Without a strong finish, it won't matter.

As the SEC season heads down the home stretch, it's going to get interesting. And even that is more than most would have expected when the Tigers returned home after being swept by Vanderbilt and falling to 1-5 in the SEC.

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