By Kevin Ives
I know the focus for Auburn this year has been getting back to Hoover. Just returning to the SEC Championship would be a major step forward in the right direction for the Tigers. However, over the past few weeks, coupled with wins over Arkansas and Kentucky, a different prize has come in to focus: An NCAA Regional Host Bid. That, personally, would be a MAJOR improvement for Auburn. Hoover is great but if Auburn could manage to host an NCAA Regional then the Tigers will be making a huge splash in their return to the national scene.
However, to get there, it has to start here. It starts this weekend. Mississippi State comes rolling in to Plainsman Park. The Dogs have lost 8 straight including a loss to SWAC upstart Jackson State and back to back series sweeps in the SEC. It’s been a rough go for a Bulldog team that is battling youth, inexperience, and snowball of bad luck. I’ll get back to the Maroon and White in a minute.
First, however, let’s talk about that Regional. Sorry, that "potential" regional. Most NCAA Projections I’ve seen all year have had 4 SEC Regional hosts. That, in and of itself, is a big deal. The league hasn’t gotten 4 hosts since 2007 and even then the 4th was by default when Mississippi State hosted Clemson for a Super Regional after the Dogs and Tigers both scored upsets in their Regionals. However, this year, I think it would be safe to assume that the SEC could legitimately get four hosts. A quick distinction: for Auburn I’m talking one of the 16 Regional host sites, NOT one of the Top 8 National seeds. So far, the names bandied about have been Arkansas, Florida, South Carolina, and Ole Miss. Let’s go ahead and pencil in UF and USC. I really believe that the Arkansas and UM series this weekend will cancel one of those teams out and Auburn could easily leap frog them. The Tigers RPI is high enough, the record is there, and the schedule sets up favorably. Auburn’s final 3 SEC series opponents are 27-36 in the SEC. On the flip side, Arkansas remaining opponent record is 40-21. Ole Miss? 35-28. Both Arkansas and UM sit above Auburn with 14-7 SEC records. Like I said before, one of those teams is going to get bumped down after losing their showdown this weekend. As long as Auburn takes care of business this weekend, they should close out this Mother’s Day Sunday sitting no worse than 2 games out of 1st place in the SEC West. ‘Taking care of business entails a sweep of one the SEC’s worst teams: Mississippi State. I can’t sugar coast MSU. The team is bad. They rank in the bottom half in pretty much every significant SEC statistic (both pitching and hitting) and are winless in May. They’ve struggled all season and honestly got embarrassed by Ole Miss last weekend. The pitching has been suspect and unstable. The hitting has been sporadic and outside of super 1B Connor Powers, there honestly isn’t a Mississippi State hitter that should cause fear in the Auburn pitching staff. Yes, I know, anything can happen. However, I’ve actually seen MSU play and it was well, ugly, to say the least.
So that should be the focus. Don’t overlook State. Don’t go in with the mentality of "we just need a series". Auburn should be focused on the sweep. A sweep will light the fuse that could send Auburn "potentially" to the NCAA Regional Host position.
THE RETURN OF THE JENKINS- I wrote about this earlier in the week, but I feel a huge reason for Auburn’s success over these past few games has been the hot hitting of SR Catcher Ryan Jenkins. Starting with the final game of the UK series (and including a midweek start vs Troy), Jenkins is hitting .500 with 3 HR and 9 rbis. Pretty impressive and pretty much needed for the Tigers to continue this hot success.
PUNCHING THE TICKET TO HOOVER- It’s close and after this weekend it could almost be a certainty. Recall that the key to Hoover is just being better than four teams. If Auburn wins 1 game this weekend (just 1) then it would essentially eliminate UGA and the Bulldogs would be unable to catch up. If Auburn takes the series from Mississippi State, then it would also push MSU out of the pack. If Auburn sweeps and UK loses just one game (or Auburn wins the series and UK losses two) then it would secure the Tigers over the Wildcats. The kicker however, would be seemingly unfathomable. The best case scenario would be for Auburn to sweep, UK to lose one (or two), and for UGA to sweep Tennessee. If that magic scenario were to happen, then Auburn would officially book their ticket to Hoover. Complicated I know, but the only thing Auburn can control is themselves and their best result would be (as repeated above) A SWEEP.
SINCE YOU’VE BEEN GONE- Since Auburn last made it to the SEC tourney every SEC team has been to Hoover at least twice and two teams (Ole Miss/South Carolina) have been all six years the Tigers have been gone.
QUICK HITTERS- There are a ton of storylines to watch this weekend. Here are some of the one I’m personally keeping a close eye on:
The Saturday starter is still TBA. Grant Dayton will go Sunday and Cory Luckie will go tonight. The Stephen Kohlscheen experiment didn’t really work last weekend against Arkansas which made that 3rd starter even cloudier. Jon Luke Jacobs could still be nursing his shoulder. Cole Nelson has been MIA since the UK series. Dexter Price has been MIA since his last midweek start. The only pitcher Auburn has really seen has been Slade Smith and he showed he had some great stuff last weekend in a hostile environment. Only the coaching staff knows but they probably won’t reveal it until last Friday or early Saturday.
Justin Fradejas extended his hitting streak to 26 games, which is good for 3rd best in the nation. The National Leader is Garrett Wittels of Florida International who has a 39 game streak.
For the first time this season, Auburn is ranked in 3 of the 4 major polls. Baseball America (19), College Baseball (24) and National Collegiate Baseball Coaches (28). Only ESPN has the Tigers unranked.
Kevin Patterson is guaranteed at least one start this weekend. He’s still hitting at a ridiculous clip but his struggle against some situational hitting has still prevented him from being and everyday guy.
Auburn needs to break out the broom sticks this weekend. If it does then a whole new world opens up and a bigger prize gets even closer for the Tigers.
Game times for this weekend: FRI (6:30pm) SAT (3pm) SUN (1pm).