Marshall: Meltdown on the Mound

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about the slumping Auburn baseball team and the change of command at the university.

It's easy to identify the differences between the first 21 games for Auburn's baseball team and the last six.

Through 21 nonconference games, Auburn pitchers had walked 60 hitters, an average of fewer than three per game. In six games against Georgia and Florida, apparently two of the weaker teams in the Southeastern Conference, they walked 36, an average of six per game. They hit 12 batters. They unleashed four wild pitches.

Amazingly, they issued four bases-loaded walks, one by freshman closer Scott Shuman that ended the Friday night game at Georgia. In Florida's 8-7 win last Friday, six of its runs were scored by runners who either walked or were hit by pitches.

Shuman, dominant in nonconference play, has walked eight of the 16 hitters he's faced against Georgia and Florida.

With as many as five freshmen in the starting lineup on any given day, it's no surprise that scoring runs against SEC pitching has been something of an issue. But no one saw the meltdown on the mound coming.

There have been other issues. Seven errors helped Florida win 12-9 last Saturday. The potential winning run was on third base with one out in the seventh and eighth innings Friday and was left there both times.

But the biggest difference between the team that was 18-3 and feeling good and the one that is 18-9, 0-6 and wondering what the future holds is the sudden inability of pitchers to throw strikes and get outs.

That third-year coach Tom Slater and his team now a face a dire situation can't be argued.

Auburn has lost 16 consecutive SEC games dating back to last season. It has not won a conference game since winning 7-6 at Alabama on April 29 of last year. There has not been an SEC Tournament appearance since 2003. Fifth-year senior pitcher Chris Dennis, who played as a freshman, is the only Auburn player who has ever played in the SEC Tournament.

And all it takes to make the field is to finish in the top eight.

With series remaining against the other five West Division teams, all is not lost at 0-6. If the Tigers can somehow regain their confidence, if their pitchers can find some consistency, climbing back into the race for at least an SEC Tournament spot is not of the question.

But it's getting close to being out of the question. Even now, just to break even in the SEC, the Tigers would have to go 15-9 in their final 24 SEC games. That's a tall order, probably too tall.

Slater and his staff have dramatically upgraded the talent level on Auburn's baseball team. The freshman class is among the best, if not the best, in the SEC. But until that translates into results on the field against SEC teams, the grumbling is going only to get louder.

Ole Miss comes to town next weekend. For Slater, for his team and for his program, it's as close to a must-win as you'll ever see.

Moving on...

Ed Richardson is in the final three months or so now of his tenure as Auburn's president. He deserves the gratitude of Auburn people everywhere.

Auburn president Dr. Ed Richardson

Richardson took over early in 2004 at an extraordinarily difficult time. SACS had put the university on probation. The jetgate scandal had been a monumental embarrassment. Various factions within the Auburn family were almost in open warfare.

Richardson was the right man for the job at the right time. He didn't want the job permanently and was beholden to no one. He did what he thought was right and guided Auburn through extraordinarily troubled waters.

Jay Gogue, by all accounts an outstanding hire, will take the reins in July. He'll have plenty of difficult issues with which to deal, but Richardson can move on secure in the knowledge that he is leaving Auburn University better than he found it...

Until next time...

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