There’s disaster, and then there’s what befell Auburn this past weekend against Mississippi State. The Tigers were riding high again. They had just taken a road series from Arkansas and we’re back in the SEC race and discussions for a regional, two things that would have surely meant a positive end to the rough-and-tumble first season under head coach Sunny Golloway. There was no mid-week game to derail the positive energy emitting from Plainsman Park. Instead, Auburn had a full week to prepare for a struggling Mississippi State team. Everything was looking fantastic and hopeful. Then, they played the games.
On Monday, Auburn found itself losers of three straight, searching for answers on offense, and all of a sudden (surprisingly) out of the SEC Tournament. The Tigers hadn’t just hit rock bottom, they’d hit rock bottom and come out the other side to China.
Sunday’s complete debacle notwithstanding, the real story of the weekend was solid pitching and absolutely no run support or offense. Sunday’s game decided to forgo the solid pitching and add the blowout cherry on top.
You can sum up the mood and everything that happened (or didn’t happen) this weekend by just reading Blake Austin’s quote from Sunday:
For senior catcher Blake Austin, it was almost too much to take. And he put much of the burden on his own shoulders.
"It stinks," Austin said. "It’s not something I like commenting on. It just (stinks). It (stinks) when you are a senior and it doesn’t go the way you want it to go. You try to do everything you can and it just (stinks) when it doesn’t happen.
"… It’s the at-bats we didn’t take and the at-bats we threw away. You have to put solid contact on every ball you can. If you don’t, walk, get hit, do something. We didn’t do that. It starts with me, because I didn’t do that at all this weekend."
That’s true. It does (stink). It truly does (stink).
But is the season completely over? No. Not yet. Yes, Auburn is now on the outside looking in for Hoover, thanks to UGA’s half-game-rain-out-lead. Auburn is still only a game behind Kentucky and Tennessee (and plays Kentucky this weekend) and is only two games behind Arkansas. What Auburn has to do would be something that it would be, in a word, miraculous. Auburn needs to take series from Kentucky and LSU. The Kentucky series could happen. Really, it could. The LSU series win could happen. It really could. Not because Auburn is the better team, but because this is baseball and anything can happen.
Auburn knows its issues. The Tigers can’t hit in the clutch. They can get hits, but they can’t string them together. They lack the big inning and it’s tough to watch. The starting pitching has been there. The offense has not. That’s it. The defense has been fantastic over the last few games. The bats? Not so much. It seems Auburn baseball is the Little Dutch Boy. They can plug one hole, but then another springs free.
Let’s pause a minute and talk about the elephant in the room: Coach Sunny Golloway. Golloway has taken a lot of heat and a lot of criticism from fans. He already has fake twitter accounts, message board ranters, and some Plainsmen sharpening their pitchforks for this head; and this is just Year 1. Fans are irate at his style. They dislike his tone and candor with the media. They dislike his hitting style and offensive approach. They dislike how he deflects blame and calls out players by name. There is a lot they don’t like, and the rabble is turning into rousing.
I’m going to be brutally honest with those fans and sum up my response to those criticisms:
Yes, this season has been frustrating. However, if you thought Auburn baseball was an overnight fix and that one coach in one season could get Auburn to Omaha, then you were sadly mistaken and ill-informed.
"Oh, but Golloway himself said: ‘Omaha. Omaha. Omaha’"
Good for him. That’s what he should have done. Would you rather have a coach who tells his players, "Hoover. That’s our goal. Hoover. We just need to shoot for the lowest acceptable level of success." No. You don’t. You want a coach who pushes his players to shoot for the absolutely highest level of success. That’s goal-building 101. I’m not saying that it wasn’t a bit of chicken-counting and that, yeah, that probably was a bit of bravado showing. I’m also not saying it was a bad thing. If Omaha is the goal for Auburn, then let it be the goal that everyone sees and works toward. Let it be the goal from Day 1. If you fail to reach that goal, then use that failure as motivation for next year.
"I don’t like how he talks to the media. I don’t like how he calls players out. CGS seems cocky and arrogant."
Fair enough. However, that’s Golloway’s style. His candor, his personality, the whole package. You might not like it. It might not be what Auburn fans are used to. It might not be what Auburn fans expect. What it is, however, is a style that has worked. Personally, I’d rather have a coach who is outspoken, who ruffles feathers, who is brutally honest, over one who is quiet, reserved, and speaks only in clichés. Golloway is fascinating in that regard. He’s the type of coach Auburn has not had in a long time. He may be the type of coach that Auburn has never had. He’s a coach who isn’t afraid to run his mouth. Honestly, that’s just what Auburn baseball needs. Instead of status quo (which hasn’t really been working), we now have a guy who is going to shake things up. Golloway isn’t here to make friends; he’s here to coach a baseball team. This is how he coaches. Deal with it.
"His coaching style makes no sense. Auburn runs itself out of innings. The bunt makes my soul hurt."
Let’s remember one thing: Golloway is still trying to develop "his style" with "other players." That’s a brutal truth. Golloway’s offensive style WILL work in the SEC. It works at Vanderbilt, it’s working a Tennessee, it works at South Carolina, and it works at Florida. The problem is that Golloway is implementing this style with players recruited and evaluated for another style. That’s one of the reasons Auburn has seen so many freshman play this season. They're the most moldable guys, the guys who haven’t built in old tendencies, the guys he can legitimately turn in to the team he’s trying to put out in the field. However, these are guys who Golloway didn’t recruit. These are guys he didn’t evaluate. These are "other players" who Golloway is turning in to "his players." That will take time, and it’s not a quick fix.
I’m not sure what the expectation was in Year 1 for Golloway. I’m not sure where most of the criticism is coming from. When he took the job (and he’s said it himself), it’s not like it was going to be an easy fix. Auburn baseball is broken and has been broken for quite some time. If Auburn fans thought that everything would be different in one year, then it was a bit of delusional optimism. This fix, this rebuilding of Auburn baseball, this is going to take time. Golloway is now the architect and has a plan. It’s a plan that has proven successful and it’s a plan that could, in theory, work.
However, it’s not a quick fix. So let’s pump the brakes on the Golloway criticisms. All I’m asking for from Golloway is signs of improvement. They're there already. The pitching staff has already shown it. The facilities have started to improve. The fan support is improving. The defense is improving. There are signs of improvement all around. Some are just harder to find than others. Golloway is building a foundation for a long career at Auburn. We’re just having a hard time seeing it as Auburn fans because all we see is the rubble of years past.
Like him or love him -- or hate him -- Golloway is Auburn’s coach, and you have to trust the athletic department (the same one that brought Bruce Pearl and Gus Malzahn and Clint Meyers to the Plains) that they found the right guy to make Auburn a contender again. Golloway is Auburn’s coach. You don’t like him? Deal with it. That may sound callous. They may sound asinine. However, that’s just how it is. Golloway shouldn’t be judged and really shouldn’t feel any heat or pressure until the 2016 season. That may seem like forever away, but that’s the truth.
I’ll still support the team. I’ll still be camped out at the darking Deck screaming my lungs out. That’s what we, as fans, can do. You might not like Golloway, but like and support the team. Encourage it. Cheer for it. Be the best fans in America.
However, this season isn’t over. Auburn has eight games remaining. The Tigers still have a chance. They still have a chance at Hoover and they still have a chance at a regional. All you ask for is a chance, and Auburn still (surprisingly) has that.
Can Auburn do it? Can the Tigers take series from LSU and Kentucky? Can they play like the team we saw earlier in the season?
Sure they can. Of course they can. This is Auburn. There is a spirit that is unafraid. There is a team that believes in hard work. There is fight in these Tigers. You know it’s there. I know it’s there.
Auburn still has the ability to win. The Tigers just need to find it right now. The passionate and orange-and-blue glassed Auburn fan in me knows they can respond.
It’s that response that will be the biggest judge for Sunny Golloway in Year 1. Not the overall record, not the overall finish. The biggest judge and how Golloway will be defined in his first season is how his team responds from getting swept by Mississippi State. How it responds after being cornered with a seemingly hopeless situation. If the Tigers fight like I know they can, then they will win.
It starts Tuesday night against Bethune-Cookman. This is your season, Tigers. It all comes down to these final eight games. Win, and you’re in. War Eagle.