Auburn, Ala.--The 2003 season was the last time the Auburn Tigers made the SEC Baseball Tournament in Hoover but this season looked to be the end of that streak. Blazing out to a 17-2 start with a series win over Arizona State, Coach Tommy Slater's Tigers looked poised to not only make the tournament but put themselves into a good position for postseason play as well.
My how two weeks can change a person's perspective. Following a tough two weeks on the diamond, the Tigers now find themselves squarely behind the eight ball in the Southeastern Conference as the only winless team in the league after being swept by both Georgia and Florida the last two weeks. From a supremely confident team two weeks ago, Auburn is now left searching for answers and junior Josh Donaldson says all they can do is keep working hard until they break through.
"It's tough," Donaldson says. "Last week we just didn't get the breaks. We played really good baseball last weekend. I don't know what to say about it. It's just not coming together right now. It's very frustrating because we felt like we had a very good team coming in here (against Florida). We still feel like we do but we're just going to have to take it with a grain and salt and come to the park and keep playing baseball. That's all I know."
There is little question that Auburn's weekend against Florida was the poorest of the year for the Tigers. Against Georgia, the Tigers played without Mike Bianucci for the weekend and lost two games in the final inning, games that Bianucci could have made a difference in because of his ability on offense. Against Florida things were very different. Offensively the Tigers played solid baseball, scoring 19 runs in three games and hitting a respectable .279 as a team. The problems came defensively and with the pitching staff.
All season long, Auburn's pitching staff had been solid and had done a great job of throwing strikes and making opposing hitters earn their way on base. That all changed against Georgia when the Tigers issued 17 walks in the three games, several in key situations. This weekend it was even worse as Auburn pitchers walked 21 Gators and also hit eight batters in the process. That is 29 free passes, too many for a great offensive club to overcome and definitely too many for a club that does well with the bats but isn't a juggernaut. Throw in nine errors in the final two games, seven in Saturday's loss, and you have a team that is struggling to find that edge once again.
"I wouldn't say my confidence is shaken," Donaldson says. "It's just frustrating to know that we feel that we have a good team and can compete. The last couple of days we haven't been competing like we want to. We're not playing at the level we know we should be. We'll get back there. It's just going to take a little more effort and more time. Hopefully we'll get some breaks to go our way."
Bruce Edwards had a good offensive weekend for the Tigers.
Auburn now finds itself four games out of first place in the SEC West after the Arkansas Razorbacks took two of three from Vanderbilt over the weekend to move into sole possession of first place. Ole Miss defeated Alabama two of three in Oxford to leave the Rebels and Crimson Tide even at 3-3 in league play. Mississippi State is also 3-3 after losing two of three to South Carolina in Starkville. LSU stands just above Auburn in the West at 1-4-1 after losing the first two at home to Kentucky this weekend and tying Sunday's game 9-9 because of the curfew rule in the conference. Donaldson says the fact that it's still early gives him and the team hope because they're only one good weekend from behind right back into the hunt for Hoover with a lot of baseball left to play.
"It's real tough but you look at the standings and you're four games back," Donaldson says. "We've still got some teams to play in the West that we have a chance to hold our own destiny if we play better baseball. Until then we just have to keep plugging away."
In the Eastern Division Florida (4-2), South Carolina (4-2) and Tennessee (4-2) are all tied for the lead with Kentucky (3-2-1) right behind after the Vols swept Georgia in Knoxville this weekend. Georgia falls to 3-3 in league play and into a tie for last place in the division with Vanderbilt but just one game out of first.
Player of the Week: It's a tough call when a team struggles as much as the Tigers did over the weekend but Bruce Edwards was clearly Auburn's best performer despite being held out of Sunday's game because of an illness. The senior center fielder went 3-4 on Friday night with an Auburn record-tying three stolen bases in the loss. He followed that up with a 2-4 day on Saturday and two more stolen bases.
Pitcher of the Week: This is the category that could easily have no winner this week but Josh Blake deserves the praise after a solid outing in relief on Saturday. Throwing two and one/thirds innings, Blake allowed two hits and no runs against the Gators. It was a solid outing and should get the lefty more work in the coming weeks with the struggles out of the pen of late.
Biggest Surprise: The collapse of Auburn's bullpen in the last two weekends has been a shock to me after watching them dominate the competition in the pre-conference schedule. If the Tigers hope to make some noise in the SEC this season the group has to get better and get better in a hurry.
Auburn Stock Report: Plummeting is the term that comes to mind. Auburn played bad baseball on Saturday and the Tigers weren't much better on Sunday. Going from a team that found ways to win games to a team that is finding ways to lose them in just two weeks is cause for alarm. Auburn is playing as many as five freshmen in the every day lineup so the struggles should not be totally unexpected but they have come from the older, more experience players much of the time. The Tigers need a shot of confidence to get things back on the right track. If that happens things could turn around quickly.
Next Up: The Tigers travel this week to face Mercer in Macon, Ga. for a Tuesday night 5 p.m. CDT start. Auburn then returns home to face a talented Ole Miss team for a three-game series at Plainsman Park next weekend. Game times are scheduled for 6 p.m. on Friday night, 2 p.m. on Saturday and 1:30 p.m. on Sunday.