Auburn, Ala.--After each of the first three weeks of the 2007 baseball season, in this very write up, we have talked about how much this Auburn team has improved but also pointed out that more would be known following the series against Arizona State. Now that series has come and gone and we have found out that the Tigers in their third year under Coach Tommy Slater are a different breed of cat than any he's had on the Plains.
The proof of that came this week as the Tigers defeated Samford 4-1 on Tuesday to set the stage for a showdown with the Sun Devils at Plainsman Park. Last season, Slater took his young team on the road to face one of the country's top programs at Arizona State and proceeded to get beat up in a fierce manner. Auburn was outscored 34-6 in three games as the Sun Devils cruised to the series sweep over the Tigers. While Auburn would go on to defeat ranked opponents Kentucky and Mississippi State in series last season, the Arizona State series was the benchmark that showed Slater and his team just how far they were behind the elite teams in the country.
This past weekend was the chance Auburn was looking for. Starting the year 10-1 coming into last week with the lone loss coming in a mid-week game to Lipscomb (who defeated LSU two out of three over the weekend in Baton Rouge), Auburn received great pitching to defeat Samford before stepping up in classification to face the surging Sun Devils beginning with Friday night's game. After getting behind early and never recovering in game one, the Tigers followed the same pattern on Saturday as Arizona State streaked to an 8-0 lead before a seven-run inning by Auburn opened the flood gates and propelled the Tigers to the win.
Sunday it was all about the bullpen as the Tigers jumped out to a 4-1 lead only to see the Sun Devils regain the lead with a four-run inning. Auburn took the lead in the eighth with Chris Dennis and Justin Bristow holding down the fort in the ninth to preserve the series win. The offensive star on Sunday was senior center fielder Bruce Edwards with three hits and three runs scored. Edwards says that Auburn had focused all spring on preparing for Arizona State and it paid off over the weekend.
"We had signs up all over the locker room coming into the series about earning some respect from these guys," Edwards says. "We wanted to prove that we could beat them and play with them. Them being a Top 10 team, we just wanted to make a statement heading into the SEC."
Auburn celebrates Josh Donaldson's big home run on Saturday.
Pitching was again the story for the Tigers last week with much of the credit going to the Auburn bullpen for its work in three victories. In 18 innings of work last week, Auburn's bullpen allowed just one earned run on 11 hits and just four total runs. Sophomore Justin Bristow was perhaps the top performer with a win and a save in four and two/thirds innings. He gave up just two hits and no runs on the week. Slater says that it's easy to see the difference in this year's team as opposed to his first two at Auburn.
"I think it all starts with pitching," Slater says. "Every time we take the field our guys feel like they've got a guy going that can win and when you feel that way you play loose and confident. If that guy doesn't get the job done there is somebody coming behind him who can. Pitching is what we all strive for in college baseball. We all strive to build good pitching staffs and it's not easy. It's a lot of hard work to get it to where you want to be but we feel good about our pitching staff right now. That's probably why our kids are playing with as much confidence as they are."
Edwards definitely agrees with his coach. After being a part of a team last season that put up a futile effort to outscore most opponents, the former football signee says that this year's team is so much different because of the way they are pitching.
"You just can't say enough about our bullpen," Edwards says. "The way those guys work and the way they come out and compete and stay within themselves and the way Coach (Butch) Thompson calls pitches, you just can't say enough about how much that helps our ball club. We just want to go out and get some runs for them because we know what kind of support they have. If it's not that guy they can put in another guy that is just as good."
Bristow has become a big part of Auburn's pitching staff out of the bullpen.
At the plate it wasn't a great week for the Tigers but Edwards did more than his share of damage to opposing teams with seven hits in 17 at-bats. Five of those seven hits came in the victories on Saturday and Sunday as Edwards scored five runs in the two games. Also having a strong week was sophomore Luke Greinke. He collected four hits in 10 at-bats and drove in six runs. Josh Donaldson added two home runs and four RBI for the week while freshmen Joseph Sanders and Robert Brooks both had four hits for the week with Brooks adding four runs batted in.
Auburn will return to action Tuesday night when the Tigers face Davidson at 6 p.m. at Plainsman Park. This coming weekend the Purdue Boilermakers will be in town as the Tigers forward to one final tune up before SEC play begins the following weekend.
Week's Top Performer: While there are many candidates my vote goes to pitcher Justin Bristow. Coming out of the bullpen in three of Auburn's four games, Bristow allowed just two hits in four and two/thirds innings and earned a win and a save. The save came in Sunday's game with Auburn's top two closers Scott Shuman and Luke Greinke both unable to go due to tightness on the cold day. Since moving to the bullpen after starting on opening weekend, Bristow hasn't given up an earned run in seven and two/thirds innings.
Biggest Surprise: I think it would have to be Auburn's comeback victory on Saturday. Trailing 8-0 against a team that had dismantled them in a three-game series last season and again on Friday night, Auburn scored seven runs to get back in the game and eventually won thanks to a Josh Donaldson home run.
Top Pitcher: With Bristow earned Top Performer honors I'll go with true freshman reliever Scott Shuman. Earning two saves after he pitched two hitless innings of relief, Shuman is quickly becoming another valuable arm for Slater out of the pen.
Most Improved: I'll go with the entire Auburn team in this category. The differences in the Auburn-Arizona State series in 2007 as compared to last year are truly phenomenal. Watching the Sun Devils destroy the Tigers last season in Arizona I thought the Tigers were still a couple of years away from challenging the top programs in the country. While they are still looking up at some, the list is growing shorter with each passing weekend.
Coach Who Most Needs A Session With Miss Manners: Arizona State Coach Pat Murphy didn't make any friends on his trip to Auburn last weekend. In addition to his continued arguing of seemingly every call that didn't go his way, he also allegedly had a verbal confrontation with a parent of an Auburn player outside the stadium following his team's loss on Saturday. After watching the wealth of talent at his disposal implode after holding an eight-run lead that day and lose a series to a team they destoyed last season in a sweep, perhaps he needs to spend more time coaching and less time blaming someone else for his team's failures.
Auburn's Stock Report: All signs are pointing up this week for the Tigers as they defeated Samford and then won a series against Arizona State. It was the seventh series victory over a ranked opponent for a Tommy Slater coached Auburn team in his three seasons but none were as important for the future of the program as the wins over Arizona State.