Auburn, Ala.--The 2007 version of the Auburn Tigers has been searching for one thing all season and that is consistency. Starting out on fire with victories in 18 of its first 21 games, Auburn was ranked in the Top 10 in the country and looking good heading into SEC play. Unfortunately for Coach Tommy Slater and the Tigers, that is when the first bad run started for the team.
Losing its first eight conference games before getting a victory over Ole Miss, Auburn then went on a streak of seven wins in eight games. Included in that was a 4-1 record in SEC play and wins at LSU and South Carolina. Riding high with confidence once again following a blowout win over the Gamecocks last Friday night, Auburn has again fallen down hard as the Tigers have given up 37 runs in three consecutive losses coming into this weekend's huge series against rival Alabama at Plainsman Park.
Currently 25-15 overall with a record of 4-11 in SEC action, Auburn is in last place in the Southeastern Conference but only three games out of seventh place and a spot in Hoover for the SEC Tournament. At 22-16, 7-8 in league play, Alabama is one of the teams Auburn is chasing. That makes this weekend even bigger than normal for Slater and the Tigers and he says his team knows exactly what's at stake and how big the weekend series against the Crimson Tide could turn out to be.
"We've talked to our guys," Slater says. "We've got 15 games left. Obviously the old cliché is you've got to take them one at a time but we've got half the season left in the SEC. At different points of the year you do some things well and at different points of the year you don't do things well. Right now, the last three games, we haven't pitched particularly well but I'm not down on our team. We've got work to do. We dug ourselves a hole at 0-8 and now we've got to dig ourselves out. The great thing about this league and this sport is that you play 30 of them and we're halfway through."
Sophomore Paul Burnside gets the ball in the series opener against Alabama Friday night. This season Burnside is 6-1 with a 2.87 ERA in nine starts.
Despite Auburn's conference record, the Tigers are a very respectable 25-15 overall with series victories over Arizona State and LSU to its credit. After playing a strong non-conference schedule, the Tigers are still in good shape to reach the postseason provided they finish strong in SEC play. The exact number of wins in its last 15 games is to be determined but a good guess at what it will take Auburn to reach the postseason is 13 SEC wins. That would mean winning 9 of 15 to close out the year. While it seems unlikely based on their recent play, Slater says the Tigers are capable of doing just that because of the talent level on this team.
"I think this is a very capable team," Slater says. "Are we one of the best 64 teams in the country? Yes, we are. We are one of the best 64 teams in the country. Right now we're in last place in the SEC so we've got to do better so that we can go represent ourselves as one of the best 64 teams in the country. I firmly believe that but we've got work to do. We've got to earn our way and prove our way into Hoover. That's the bottom line. At the end of the year, if we're not there, the record will show that we weren't good enough to be there and we'll say that team wasn't good enough.
"When we go around and play different teams is it a totally different feeling than it was a year ago? It is. I'm not looking at us versus other people in our league and going ‘ugh'. That's not the case any more. Now what we have, physically, we can match. I'm not looking at other teams saying ‘I'll take that guy and that guy and that guy and that guy'. Now I'm going ‘I'll take my guy and my guy and my guy', but at the end of the year it's got to be more than that. We feel like our physical talent is definitely good enough but we've got to go out and win."
For the Tigers, the winning must start this weekend against Alabama. With series remaining against Top 10 opponents Arkansas and Vanderbilt as well as at Mississippi State and at Kentucky, this could be the easiest weekend left for the Tigers to do some damage. The last time Auburn swept Alabama was during the 2001 season, a year that saw the Tigers lose their first nine conference games before rebounding to finish at 15-15 overall. If Auburn hopes to finish strong, the Tigers just may need history to repeat itself.
Game times for the weekend series at Plainsman Park are set for 6 p.m. on Friday, 3 p.m. on Saturday and 1:30 Sunday afternoon. Friday and Sunday can be seen live on CSS while Saturday's game will be shown on Fox Sports Net.