By Kevin Ives
Plainsman Parking Lot
Two games. That's all it will take. Win two games and Auburn is OFFICIALLY assured a return to Hoover and the SEC Championship. The Tiger's magic number is down to 2 and any combination of Tiger wins and Alabama losses that equal 2 means that Auburn will accomplish their overall goal for the 2010 season: a return to the SEC Championshp.
Standing in their way? A very hot Tennessee squad. A Vol team that was almost left for dead almost a month ago but has battled back, won three straight SEC series, 8 straight games, and seems to be clicking at the right time. UT is going to be hungry coming into Plainsman Park. The Orange hold a strenuous 8th place position in the overall SEC standings. A win and they push more space between them and Alabama. UT will want this series badly, especially since Auburn has historically had the Vols number ( 76-33 overall/43-18 in Auburn). Auburn faced a hungry South Alabama squad on Tuesday and it didn't really work out in the Tigers favor. Personally, I take the USA game as a wake-up call for Auburn. The Tigers were cruising and the Jags upset walk-off win brought AU back to Earth. It was much needed and I think will help refocus Auburn as they make a push for the post-season.
The key this weekend will be to neutralize the Vols offense. Namely, all-everything LF P.J. Polk. Polk is the offensive star for UT; hitting an unreal .532 with runners in scoring position. He's also one of only five UT players all time to make it to the 10/20 club (10 HRs, 20 stolen bases). For every category of significance offensively, there's P.J. Polk in the top ten in the League. Polk isn't the only threat of course. Auburn will also have to deal with Catcher Blake Forsythe (12 HRs) and 1B Cody Hawn (55 RBIs). If Auburn can silence the UT bats then it can cruise. That might be asking a lot since the past four outings haven't exactly been stellar for the Tigers. Still, Grant Dayton is undefeated against UT and the bullpen shouldn't be too taxed. UT will present a unique challenge for Auburn. The Vols are extremely patient at the plate and have a good combination of power and speed. They will try to be super aggressive on the base paths and jump early. UT is a ridiculous 15-3 this year when scoring first.
On the flip side, Auburn will surely be able to hit the Vol pitching. They don't have anybody that particularly "wows" you. They give up a good number of walks, a good number of HRs, and don't get a lot of strikeouts. However, they've pitched better the second half of the season. Through the first 28 games UT was getting knocked around to the tune of a 6.29 ERA. Since the midpoint? It's down to 3.98. They might have turned a corner or they've just benefited from two rain shortened games against Vanderbilt and feasting on a lackluster Georgia squad. It's hard to tell at this point.
For Auburn, all they need is two games. Two wins and it shows that Auburn has officially turned a corner and Coach John Pawlowski has the Tigers on the right track. Now 3 wins? Well, three wins and Auburn keeps those dreams of hosting a Regional alive. However, for now, Auburn needs to focus on taking the first two and returning to Hoover.
34, not just for Bo anymore- Auburn is trying to get win number 34 on the season. The Tigers currently sit at 33-16. One more win and it will be the most for an Auburn team since 2003 when AU went 38-17 and finally finished 42-21.
JENKINS KEEPS MASHING- Ryan Jenkins continues his rebirth. Currently on a 10 game hitting streak where he's hitting at a .537 clip. That include at least 1 run each game, 5 of his 6 HRs, 5 of his 8 doubles, 15 RBI. He's raised his batting average from .277 all the way up to .363.
GOING, GOING, GONE- A couple of weeks ago, it looked like Auburn wasn't going to even come close to hitting their school record homerun total. However, the Tigers have been completely mashing lately and are only a few games from the record.
KP'S SLUGGING CONTINUES- I still don't think this can be said enough. Kevin Patterson, in limited at-bats, is performing like an All-American at the plate. He's 3rd on the team in extra base hits yet has mainly been used in situational roles. Crazier than that? KP has more Homeruns (14) than he does singles (12). His slugging % is an absurd .909. For comparison? Babe Ruth (.690), Ted Williams (.634), and Albert Pujols (.626).
FAMILIAR FOES- Auburn Coach John Pawlowski and Tennessee Skipper Todd Raliegh are well acquainted. When CJP was at College of Charleston and Raleigh was at Western Carolina, the two tangled 32 times with Pawlowski winning 24 of them.
With a win this weekend, Auburn can make a bit of History. The Tigers haven't won four straight SEC series since 2003. A sweep and they tie the 2003 SEC record of 18-12. Also, in the current SEC tournament format, no team has won 16 conference games and NOT made the SEC Tournament.
Regional Wise it's going to be close for the Tigers. The RPI took a bit of a hit with the South Alabama loss. However, the future is totally in Auburn's hands and most predictors agree that if Auburn can beat Tennessee (better for a sweep) and beat Ole Miss then the Tigers should be guaranteed a Regional Hosting slot. It started last weekend against Mississippi State and continues this weekend against Tennessee. Auburn needs to stay focused, stay loose, and stay ready for continued success.