Baseball Analysis: Strong Finish Needed

Auburn is looking to finish strong and it must begin this week at Mississippi State.

Auburn, Ala.--Needing to win two to play catch up in the Southeastern Conference race, the Auburn Tigers struggled on the mound against the Arkansas Razorbacks and won just once against the league's top team.

Now 7-14 in SEC play, Auburn is in last place in the league, but just two and a half games behind LSU and Kentucky for eighth place in the standings heading to Mississippi State this weekend for a three-game series against the Bulldogs.

After winning two of three at home against Alabama the previous weekend, the Tigers were playing solid baseball coming into this week, but the injury bug bit this Auburn team at just the wrong time and to the wrong people. The biggest came to Friday night starter Paul Burnside. Out because of a strained bicep, Burnside's absence was sorely felt as Auburn's three weekend starters of Evan Crawford, Taylor Thompson and Bryan Woodall combined to give up 31 hits and 21 earned runs in just 15 2/3 innings in the series.

Those numbers make it hard for a team to win consistently. Looking back on a weekend when Auburn gave up 63 baserunners to the powerful Razorback offense, the Tigers were very fortunate to come away with one win and stay within striking distance in the race for Hoover.

One of the bright spots of the week on the mound was the pitching of true freshman Austin Hubbard. Coming on in relief of Woodall in Sunday's contest, the former standout at Homewood High gave up just one run in three and one/third innings. Couple that with an outstanding start against Troy on Wednesday when he gave up just two earned runs in five innings and you have the best outings of the season for Hubbard. Was it good enough to move him into a starting role? Coach Tom Slater says possibly.

"That's a great question," Slater says. "Certainly he could be looked at in that role, especially after the way he threw (Sunday) and Wednesday. With his ability to throw three pitches for a strike he could be a guy to look to."

Hubbard has come on strong near the end of his freshman season.

The other pitcher with a strong performance last week was senior Chris Dennis. Pitching well in his last several outings out of the bullpen, Dennis earned the victory on Saturday and has been Auburn's most consistent bullpen performer in the last three weeks.

In the field the Tigers had some changes as well with junior Josh Donaldson unable to go after the second inning on Saturday and the entire game on Sunday because of a jammed right thumb. Slater says he should be fine for next weekend, but had some swelling as of Sunday afternoon. Luke Greinke was also bothered all weekend by a sore shoulder after pitching well Wednesday night. Because of those injuries and a lapse in concentration by true freshman Joseph Sanders, sophomore Justin Bristow got his chance to get back on the field at a position and he made the most of it.

Battling through a wrist injury that kept him from swinging a bat much of the fall and early spring, Bristow came in during Wednesday's game as a defensive replacement and played well enough to earn himself more time against Arkansas. In two games against the Razorbacks he had four hits in seven at-bats with three runs scored and one RBI. Slater says he likely earned himself more playing time with the way he handled things in a pinch.

"He had a banged up wrist for a while and then banged up his thumb catching (Scott) Shuman," Slater says. "Shuman beat up his thumb pretty good. He's kept persevering and kept working. The perseverance has shown. He really played defense well at third base and swung the bat good. I'm proud of him.

"This kid came in here as the most hyped kid ever in Auburn baseball, at least since I have been around it. Tim Hudson wasn't hyped like that. Nobody has been hyped like this kid. He had a scuffling first year and he's scuffled a little bit this year, but he hasn't given in. It's nice to see him have some success."

Player of the Week: My player of the week is pitcher Austin Hubbard. With the staff struggling to perform, the true freshman was outstanding in his two appearances and likely earned more action on the weekends and even possibly a starting gig against the Bulldogs.

Biggest Surprise: It would have to be the performance of Justin Bristow in the field and at the plate. With very little time fielding ground balls or in the batting cages this year, Bristow showed this week why he was a top prospect out of Virginia.

Stock Report: Falling fast. This team is beat up at just the wrong time. The Tigers need a healthy Burnside, Donaldson and Greinke and some solid starting pitching if they hope to stay within striking distance of eight place in the league. With nine games remaining and seven conference wins, the Tigers need five wins at a minimum and likely six to have a shot at making the tournament in Hoover.

SEC Standings Week Eight

Western Division
Arkansas 15-6 35-12
Ole Miss 12-9 30-16
Mississippi State 10-9 28-12
Alabama 10-11 25-20
LSU 9-11-1 24-20-1
Auburn 7-14 28-19

Eastern Division
Vanderbilt 15-6 39-8
South Carolina 11-10 33-13
Florida 10-11 23-23
Kentucky 9-11-1 30-13-1
Tennessee 8-11 25-19
Georgia 7-14 17-28

Friday's Scores
Arkansas 12, Auburn 1
Alabama 10, South Carolina 5
Ole Miss 17, Mississippi State 7
Tennessee 7, LSU 1
Vanderbilt 10, Florida 1
Kentucky 8, Georgia 7 (12 innings)

Saturday's Scores
Auburn 11, Arkansas 9
South Carolina 4, Alabama 1
Ole Miss 5, Mississippi State
LSU 4, Tennessee 2
Vanderbilt 17, Florida 6
Georgia 9, Kentucky 3

Sunday's Scores
Arkansas 8, Auburn 1
Alabama 11, South Carolina 10
Mississippi State 4, Ole Miss 1 (17 innings)
Tennessee 10, LSU 9
Vanderbilt 13, Florida 5
Kentucky 13, Georgia 5

Next Week's Games
Auburn at Mississippi State
LSU at Arkansas
Alabama at Florida
Ole Miss at Tennessee
Vanderbilt at Georgia
Kentucky at South Carolina

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