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The Tigers continued to show a lot of progress at the Auburn Tournament. Even a disappointing loss couldn't mar the positives from the final two games.
It wasn't a perfect weekend, but it will do for Auburn. After having the opener rained out on Friday (despite offerings to JOBU and me sitting in the rain for an hour), Auburn was once again set to play a Saturday doubleheader. The Tigers performed to mix results.
I don't know if it was the early start time, the six-day layoff between appearances or some other mystical force, but Auburn was sluggish against Middle Tennessee State. The game against the Blue Raiders reinforced one of my biggest concerns about the Tigers. When faced with an ace pitcher, Auburn can be completely shut down. MTSU starter Hunter Adkins did just that. He went eight strong innings, allowing just three hits and spoiling an otherwise great start from Auburn's Daniel Koger.
There was still a glimmer of hope. Auburn clung to a tight 1-0 lead heading into the top of the eighth. Koger was already reaching his pitch limit (he was at 101 to start the inning), and after a Jordan Ebert error, his day was done. Instead of going to a set-up guy, head coach John Pawlowski went immediately to Terrance Dedrick to close the game out. Everything looked good. Dedrick got a strikeout on a failed bunt attempt, a fly out to right, and it looked like Auburn would escape damage. Then, two pitches in to MTSU second baseman Johhny Thomas, disaster struck. Thomas hit a two-run homer, and Auburn was trailing for the first time. I don't know what happened with the pitch. It may have been left up in the zone. I didn't listen to the postgame interviews to see if CJP offered an explanation. All I know is that, for the first time on the young season, Auburn's bullpen showed a crack, and MTSU exploited it.
That was frustrating. Another error came back to bite the Tigers. However, what was even more frustrating was the bottom of the ninth. The Auburn bats, which had been silent most of the day, suddenly had some life. Ryan Tella walked. Garrett Cooper struck out swinging. Damek Tomscha was hit by a pitch. Cullen Wacker looked like he had hit into a game-ending double play but was saved by catcher's Interference. At that point, Auburn was really in business, as the tying run was 90 feet away. All Auburn needed was a fly ball, and the game would be going to extras. Instead, Blake Austin popped out down the right field line, and J.D. Crowe was asked to come in cold off the bench to replace Kody Ortman (who had previously replaced Sam Gillikin). Crowe popped up on an 0-2 count and with that, Auburn suffered its first loss of the season.
The lack of offense was especially disconcerting for Auburn. For a team who's bats seemed to be clicking last weekend, to see the Tigers get three-hit and look just listless at the plate brought back from bad memories. That was the difference. I can't blame Dedrick for the blown save. Yes, the game was tight, but Koger kept Auburn in it. The errors and the lack of pressure from the Auburn bats made it way too close to comfort.
However, the Tigers needed to have short memories. They would have a game 30 minutes later against a pretty scary College of Charleston team. Auburn responded well, and the game against C of C was probably the best one that Auburn has put together to date. No errors, and with a great start from Michael O'Neal (6 IP/5 Ks/4 H/0 ER) and a great performance out of the bullpen by Trey Cochran-Gill (3 IP/ 0 H/1 ER), Auburn dominated on the hill. The bats seemed to wake up as well. The Tigers banged out 11 hits and translated those into five runs. It was a great response overall and it (hopefully) signaled a change in the right direction for the team.
While the College of Charleston game was Auburn's best overall, the Indiana State game was the one that gave me the most hope for the rest of the year. Auburn again started out strong, jumping out to a three-run lead after one inning. Then, disaster. Rocky McCord completely fell apart in the second inning, and just like that, the Sycamores were able to bat around and score five runs. Auburn, for the first time, would have to go to its bullpen early and for an extended period of time.
Justin Camp was first up, and honestly, it looked like Auburn was about to get run out of the park. Camp gave up a double but then settled in to an incredible groove. He and Conner Kendrick combined for 7 1/3 innings of one-hit baseball (that lone hit coming on Camp's first batter faced), and after that, nothing but a great line of 7 1/3 IP/0 ER/6 K/3 BB. Camp and Kendrick were able to hold serve and give Auburn's bats a chance to claw back into the game. That was the Auburn that I liked to see. It restored my faith in the bullpen and showed that if the starter did have an off day, the bullpen could be more than capable of holding its own while the offense went to work.
The weekend was a success. Yes, a 3-0 record would have been better, but I think a lot of people underestimated MTSU. The Blue Raiders finished the tournament undefeated and turned more than a few heads on the national level. I think how MTSU finished the weekend takes a bit of the sting out of the opening loss. Just a little bit.
The offense, however, still needs some work. If Auburn can be shut down by a dominating Sun Belt pitcher, then SEC play is going to be brutal, as the league is loaded with arms and top pitching. Auburn has arms of its own, but if the Tiger offense can't keep the team in games, the season could go off the rails in a hurry.
So where is the issue? The first problem is the lack of steals. Auburn is still attempting steals, but just not having success. The Tigers are just 3-of-9 on the year and only had one successful attempt on the weekend. That has to change.
Hitting-wise, Auburn has three guys who are scuffling a bit: Cooper, Gillikin and Wacker. They hit .182, .222, and .222 during the tournament, respectively. Auburn tried a bit of shuffling by flip-flopping Tomsha and Cooper in the lineup. It did produce, but I don't know if the production is that significant to call it a success. I have complete faith that Cooper can turn it around; I'm chalking it up to an early winter funk. Gillikin may be experiencing some growing pains as a freshman. Still, both of these guys will probably stay in the lineup based on what they bring to the field defensively.
Wacker is going to be an interesting case. I don't know if Pawlowski is ready to pull the trigger and try out a new DH, but if he is, then it should be time to either give J.D. Crowe or Rock Rucker a shot. The Tuesday game against Kennesaw State may be just the right chance and opportunity to try out some new bats.
Pitching-wise? I'm very pleased with the performance. McCord's hiccup notwithstanding, the pitching overall was excellent. I know Koger is still searching for that elusive first win for the 2013 season, but it will come soon enough. The bullpen still showed that it was a strength. The starting pitching (minus McCord) went deep into the games.
The biggest positive was the two clean and error free games from Auburn against College of Charleston and Indiana State. Dan Glevenyak and Ebert both made some crucial plays in those two games, and toward the end, I no longer had an reflexive "gasp" as I saw a ball hit toward them.
Auburn will get its first midweek action Tuesday, and it will be a chance to keep the bats hot and hopefully try a few new things out defensively and with the lineup. The starting pitcher is still listed as TBA, but if I had a guess, then I would say it would be either Dillon Ortman or possibly the debut of Trey Wingenter. Right now, I'd say there is an 80 percent chance it is Ortman.
Now, let's put a final bow on the weekend and give out the JOBUs (out of five):
Middle Tennessee State
College of Charleston