It really is a new day for Auburn baseball. The Tigers went down to Port Charlotte, Fla., for the Snowbird Classic, won two out of three over Indiana State and UConn, and returned to the Plains with confidence and a sense of excitement that is slowly spreading throughout the entire Auburn fanbase.
Before we talk about the positives, let’s look at the one blotch on the weekend: the 1-0 loss to Ohio State. Yes, it was ugly and disappointing to be shutout and to only manage five hits. Yes, it was frustrating to leave nine men on base. However, it was a loss that had mistakes and errors that were easily pointed out and can be corrected by head coach Sunny Golloway. In fact, he spelled it out plain and simple in the postgame:
Twice, one-out bunts resulted in runners being thrown out at third base. A hit and run that went awry resulted in Anfernee Grier being thrown out at home. And Golloway fumed. He said he was "as mad as I've been in seven or eight years."
"It is a terrible mistake by a third baseman not come get the ball," Golloway said. "When we had runners on first and second with one out, the third baseman just stayed there. He did not move one time.
Hitters were told, Golloway said, to bunt the ball anywhere but to the pitcher. Twice they bunted it to the pitcher. Another time pinch hitter Daniel Robert popped out to the catcher on a bunt attempt.
"We should have been able to exploit and drag the ball all day long," Golloway said. "They didn't budge him. They expected the pitcher to go all the way over and pick it up. Twice he was able to throw it to third base. All you have to do is bunt the ball with conviction down the third-base line. We tried to exploit that twice and bunted the ball to the pitcher. We did it twice. We popped one up in a crucial situation."
Most of the mistakes in that game and all weekend were made by freshmen, freshmen who made up a good chunk of Auburn’s roster. That’s going to happen. That’s a positive of playing a tough and non-cupcake opponent in the opening weekend: You’re going to see where you screwed up now and be able to fix it for later. You aren’t going to be able to win sloppy games and miss mistakes and be blindsided when late March comes around. You will see the problems now.
The lack of offense against the Buckeyes was the main story, but let’s look at the lineup that was put out there. Auburn was still missing center fielder Ryan Tella, Blake Logan was subbing in for Blake Austin (which would be normal later in the season) at catcher, and Patrick Savage was at DH. Savage’s sub over Daniel Robert didn’t make a real difference. The biggest difference was the absence of Tella. Without Tella in the lineup, it forced freshman JJ Shaffer into leadoff, pushed Keegan Thompson, another freshman, up the 3-hole (where he had three LOB Friday and three more Saturday), and Auburn wasn’t really able to go with speed at the top of the lineup. Shaffer did a good job all weekend. However, having Tella in the lineup allows Anfernee Grier to lead off and takes some pressure off of the heart of the order. It’s just one game, but in the two games without Tella, Auburn scored only four runs and mustered only 12 hits. In the Sunday game, Auburn notched seven runs and compiled nine hits. Tella makes a big difference with his bat.
There were some other areas of concern this weekend on offense. There was a distinct lack of extra base hits, there were those frustrating base-running mistakes that Golloway mentioned, and there were the lack of clutch hits. Even in the win on Sunday and the seven run output, Auburn still left 12 men on base.
All of those are things that people and fans should expect on the opening weekend. It’s a part of gelling as a team. It’s part of working in a system. It’s part of becoming a baseball team.
Here’s what wasn’t expected offensively and what should highly encourage Auburn fans:
The Tigers stole 10 bases. In three games, Auburn hit 10 steals. Auburn didn't get its 10th stolen base until Game 14 last year.
The Tigers were also patient: five K's on Friday, three on Saturday, and three on Sunday. That’s only 11 strikeouts through three games. In a lineup dominated by freshmen. That’s amazing. Auburn wasn't free-swinging as much and came up with a plan of attack. Guys were ready to sacrifice, and guys were ready to advance runners no matter the position or situation. It was a team-first mentality, and that was extremely encouraging to see.
The hits are going to come for Auburn. I wouldn't be surprised to see a bit of the frustration on offense for the Tigers taken out on the next two opponents: Alabama State and Arkansas Pine-Bluff. The more Auburn plays, the more the Tigers will start to gel as a team. The most cuts they take in actual game situations, the more they will start to gain confidence and abilities to use later on in the year.
The biggest story of the weekend was the pitching. It was outstanding, from Dillon Ortman’s mastery on Friday to Keegan Thompson’s impressive debut on Sunday. The Tigers pitched with confidence, they pitched with purpose, and they recorded big outs when they needed to get them. The bullpen held up strong with only two runs -- one earned -- allowed all weekend. The Tigers return to Auburn with a 0.67 ERA. Read that one more time. In 27 innings, Auburn's pitchers allowed only two earned runs.
Now, Auburn gave up two unearned runs, meaning the Tigers did commit some errors on the weekend. However, those were minimal. The big ones were mainly passed balls. Dan Glevenyak, who most worried was going to continue his defensive struggles from last season, had a grand total of zero errors. Damon Haecker had one at second base, but that really was a tough-break throw when he was trying to turn a double play.
Overall, Auburn looked like a much improved team and a team with a focus and purpose. It was exciting to see and gives real hope for 2014.
The biggest game, to me, was the opener. Indiana State has the potential to surprise some teams. The Sycamores ended up being the big winners of the Snowbird Classic, going 3-1. The one loss, a shutout against Auburn, could end up being big for the Tigers later in the year. The Sycamores, with a little help, could become one of those nice mid-level RPI boosters that Auburn will need come selection time. Warren Nolan has them at an early 9 in the RPI, and the Tigers have a road win against them that can’t be taken away. Auburn fans would be smart to keep an eye on them during the year, especially if they can take their next series from New Orleans.
Auburn held ISU to zero runs and completely controlled the game. It was a nice start to the season, and it showed that the Tigers are capable of using small-ball offense and timely pitching to win games this season. Auburn manufactured most of its runs that Friday and scored four without the luxury of an extra-base hit. Instead, the Tigers used three sac hits and four stolen bases to claw to an early 1-0 lead and tack on insurance late in the game. That's going to be Auburn's normal method. Just keep the game close until the sixth/seventh/eighth innings, and let all those little offense things set up earlier in the game finally break the dam.
Here’s what I learned about Auburn this weekend:
Shaffer is a competent sub for Tella. Sure, his position in the lineup means added pressure for the rest of the order since Shaffer is better suited as a leadoff, which forces Grier to the bottom of the order. However, he had solid contact and even better speed. His knock is going to remain his patience at the plate and his habit of chasing strikes. Still, that will change over time.
Thompson is the real deal. He didn’t have a monster weekend at the plate, but he still added a solid bat and was a hard out. His pitching debut on Sunday showed what Auburn fans had been expecting: a strike-throwing and surprising arm that can rack up strikeouts and become a force in the salvage Sunday role. The one drawback on Thompson is going to be his pitch economy. His 96 pitches were the most of any Tigers starter over the weekend, and he got deep into the count with a lot of hitters. However, by being that high-K guy, he’s going to toss more pitches than normal. What Auburn will have to watch is to make sure his overall pitch count, coupled with his everyday playing role, doesn’t wear on him down the line.
Grier is lightning. It’s that simple. He and Glevenyak will be a huge force stealing bases and creating problems on the base paths. What they will have to watch out for is making base-running errors. There were a few, but those should -- hopefully -- be erased as the season progresses.
Dillon Ortman has the potential to be a great Friday night guy. He was confident and economical on Friday against Indiana State. If he keeps that up, Auburn will be able to get off on the right foot in most of its series this year.
It will also be interesting to see how Auburn’s pitching does when fully stretched out. Ortman went just five innings, O’Neal six, and Thompson 5 2/3. There wasn’t a need to push them past their limits this early. However, by April or early March, they should be fully stretched and ready to go seven innings consistently.
The bullpen was solid overall. Justin Camp and Trey Cochran-Gill excelled in long-relief roles. Terrance Dedrick, though he didn’t get a save, was excellent in his Sunday appearance. The biggest issue with TD is going to be how he handles inherited runners. It was something I saw a little bit of last season. When he has a clean slate and empty bases, Dedrick is money. When he enters in a more high-pressure situation and isn’t fully loose or ready? He can struggle. It’s not a huge struggle, but it’s a blip or two that can mean either a closer game than needed or a blown save.
Overall, Auburn got what it needed over the weekend: a solid performance, a nice blueprint to build on, a few big wins, and an early confidence boost. That blueprint for Auburn is what will be the difference in a regional for the Tigers. The blueprint is also pretty simple: timely pitching, creating -- and capitalizing on -- offensive chances, and solid defense. Golloway puts it pretty simply. He calls it the 5/4 rule. Those were the numbers he was focusing on this weekend. Score more than five runs, hold opponents to fewer than four. You have to like Auburn’s chances.
The Tigers have a midweeker against Alabama State and then the Tiger Classic against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Cal, and East Tennessee State. The Cal game on Saturday will be the marquee game after the Golden Bears split a four-game set with Texas in the opening weekend. Cal is decent and will be the biggest challenge for Auburn. A win would keep the Tigers rolling and give them another nice RPI booster for later in the year.
For now, Auburn just needs to stick to the plan and focus on the Hornets for Wednesday. Take it one game at a time and let the blueprint go to work. It’s there. Auburn saw it in action. Now, it’s all about execution.