AU Still In NCAA Discussion With Bama Up Next

Auburn needs a series win over Alabama this week to keep alive its slim hopes of making the postseason.

Auburn, Ala.--While the dreams of making it back to the SEC Tournament are gone, the Auburn Tigers still have plenty to play for this week when they take on the Alabama Crimson Tide at Plainsman Park. Even though beating your arch rival is incentive enough, Auburn isn't out of the running for an at-large berth just yet because of a strong schedule and RPI that has the Tigers squarely in the mix.

Following a victory over Georgia Southern on Tuesday, Auburn (29-24, 9-18) finds itself 34th in the RPI in both Boyd's World and Warren Nolan. The Tigers have played 13 teams in the Top 51 in the RPI this season and has a schedule strength well inside the Top 20 in the nation. Coach John Pawlowski said it's not something they are focusing on, but he feels like his team still has an outside shot at the postseason.

"I think we need to play well and win," Pawlowski said. "Obviously when you look at what the committee is going to do and what happens with people that get in and people that don't make it, I don't really know what we have to do. The more games we win, at least maybe we'll be on the board and people will think about it. I don't know if there's a magical number."

Something that will help Auburn's chances is the strength of the SEC overall as a league this season. With nine teams in the Top 34 in RPI at the moment, the league has shown it's teeth this season. Will it be enough to get Auburn or even Kentucky in the tournament despite not making it to Hoover? That is debatable. With the Pac 10 and Big 10 both struggling, it could be a year when league strength overrides how a team finishes in the conference. Pawlowski said despite what happens the SEC has definitely lived up to its billing this season.

"I think overall as a conference we were one or two," Pawlowski said. "I think it speaks volumes for the schools in the conference. We've also played a lot of tough non-conference games. You look at Georgia Southern yesterday. Their RPI was in the low 30's and they've won 35 games. It certainly helps when you play better teams.

"The team is very disappointed we didn't get into Hoover," he adds. "We didn't get into the SEC Tournament, but that's over and done with. Now we've got to move forward and find out what we can do this weekend."

All that talk won't matter if the Tigers don't take care of business this weekend against the Crimson Tide. That won't be an easy task though as Alabama (36-15, 17-9) enters the three-game series as one of the hottest teams in the country. Winners of 14 of their last 17 conference games, Alabama is playing for the outright SEC Championship and a shot to host an NCAA Regional. Pawlowski said it will be a huge challenge for his team this weekend against the white hot Crimson Tide.

Leading the SEC in batting average at .337, Alabama is led by Kent Matthes who is having a huge year. Hitting .371, he has 26 home runs and 77 RBI and is slugging an incredible .904 this season. It's not just on offense where the Crimson Tide is tough as the pitching staff is led by Austin Hyatt's 8-1 record and ERA of 3.13. He has struck out 76 and walked just nine in 89 innings this season.

"They've got 100-plus home runs," Pawlowski said. "Offensively they are probably the most balanced team in our league. With Matthes leading the country with 26 home runs. They've got some speed. They've got a freshman (Taylor Dugas) who will probably be the freshman of the year in the conference. On the mound their starters are all very experienced. I think Alabama is a team, when we played them the first time I thought they had a chance to be very good. They've certainly lived up to that billing."

Something that could help the Tigers this weekend is the possible return of slugger Joseph Sanders to Auburn's lineup. Out since April 21 after being hit in the face by a pitch against Samford, Sanders took batting practice for the first time on Tuesday night. Pawlowski said they'll see how he reacts in practice before making a decision about whether to put him on the active roster for this weekend.

Even if the does return it's likely to just be in a DH role, but that's still plenty of help for the Tigers if he's back. Hitting .329, Sanders leads Auburn with 18 home runs, 14 doubles, and 54 RBI. Pawlowski said getting him back would be big for his team.

"When you really look at it we miss Joe's bat in the lineup," Pawlowski said. "It gives us more options. When you're running six or seven lefties out there against these left-handed pitchers in the league, I think it changes the whole complexion of the game. It makes teams maybe go to their bullpen and make some switches."

Playing the final series of the year against Alabama is always big. In the first year of a program it can be huge though. Pawlowski said getting a series win over the Crimson Tide would help out tremendously heading into next season for everyone involved.

"I think it would really boost the confidence of the guys that are coming back," Pawlowski said. "I think it would be a great way to finish off a long season. If we could win this series you're looking at going out on a solid note…the guys coming back realize we came close to getting into the SEC Tournament. That's what separates good team are the little things, maybe one game here or one play there or one pitch there. Hopefully they'll remember that coming back next year."

Game times for the series are 6 p.m. on both Thursday and Friday night and 3 p.m. on Saturday. Auburn's pitching rotation will consist of freshman Jon Luke Jacobs (3-4, 6.10) on Thursday, sophomore Grant Dayton (2-6, 6.10) on Friday and freshman Dexter Price (4-2, 5.40) on Saturday.

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