Marshall: Tough Road For Baseball Tigers

Auburn's baseball team must finish strong to have a chance to make the SEC Tournament in Hoover in two weeks.

It's not over for Auburn's baseball team, but it's close.

If the Tigers are to get into the Southeastern Conference Tournament, they'll have to finish on a tear in the final six games of the regular season. And there's no guarantee that will be enough.

Here's the situation:

Auburn trails seventh-place Vanderbilt by three games, eighth-place Mississippi State by 2 ½ games, ninth-place LSU by one game and 10th-place Tennessee by half a game. The top eight teams advance to the SEC Tournament at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium.

To get into the tournament, Auburn must win three more games than Mississippi State or four more games than Vanderbilt and, in the process, pass LSU and Tennessee. Auburn would lose a tiebreaker with LSU or Vanderbilt and would win a tiebreaker with Mississippi State. Because Mississippi State has a rainout, that tiebreaker is unlikely to matter.

To make things even tougher for Auburn, its final two series are testy. Georgia rolls into town tonight as perhaps the hottest team in the SEC, having swept Florida and South Carolina the past two weekends. The regular-season finale is at Arkansas, which swept Alabama out of first place last weekend.

After playing their best baseball for the previous month, the Tigers had one of their worst performances of the season at the worst possible time last weekend against LSU. The Tigers had their destiny in their own hands going into that series, but being swept at home changed all that.

At 22-28 overall and 9-15 in the SEC, barring a 6-0 finish, the Tigers will finish the regular season with an overall losing record for the first time since 1983.

Second-year coach Tom Slater looked at the situation and told president Ed Richardson during his job interview in 2004 that the 2006 season would be an uphill climb. It was made worse by injuries to an already thin pitching staff.

The Tigers have won some games they could have lost and lost some games they could have won, but in the end, a team with three newcomers at four infield positions, a catcher playing the position for the first time in college and a rotation with just one pitcher who had ever pitched in an SEC game before this season just wasn't ready to get it done.

There is a fine line between success and failure in SEC baseball, finer than in any other sport. Baseball is just different, which is why the major leagues play 162 games.

The worst team can blow out the best team on any given day. Auburn is in 11th place but has a series win over first-place Kentucky, which won just seven SEC games last season. Florida played in the national championship game last year and is dead last in the SEC this year. Georgia played in the College World Series in 2004, finished 11th in the SEC in 2005 and is contending again this season.

Junior Chris Dennis says the Tigers have shown improvement this season.

Fourth-year pitcher junior Chris Dennis, the old man of the pitching staff, understands better than most on Auburn's team how much experience means. But Dennis, who is still fighting back from Tommy John surgery, says he sees great promise for Auburn baseball.

"It's hard when you are playing and losing to step back and see how we are really developing," Dennis said. "If you come out and play somebody in the SEC and they are having a good weekend, they can beat you when you are playing well. It's hard to take a step back and realize we have come a long way and are actually playing pretty well.

"Kentucky is in first place for a reason. They've been around and they know how to handle themselves. That's part of growing up in this league. SEC play is just different. Every weekend, you are playing Top 25 talent. The teams that win are the teams that win that one pitch in those four or five games during the year. They do it for a number of different reasons, but a lot of it is just having been there."

That applies to every sport in the SEC. Talent is the No. 1 ingredient, but experience isn't far behind.

Until next time …

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