Game 1: Mississippi State 5, Auburn 3
Game 2: Auburn 10, Mississippi State 6
Game 3: Auburn 8, Mississippi State 2
Auburn continued to stay hot in SEC play and bounced back from a midweek loss to Samford with another series win, this time over Mississippi State. After losing Game 1 to Chris Stratton, who just might be the best pitcher in the SEC, the Tigers flexed their offensive muscles and scored 18 runs over the final two games. Auburn's third straight series win to open SEC play leaves the Tigers tied with LSU atop the SEC West standings and, more importantly, gives Auburn a tiebreaker advantage over three of its five Western opponents. After pulling upsets over Ole Miss, who just won a series over No. 1 Florida, and LSU, who just swept a top 5 Arkansas team, the Mississippi State series shows just how good Auburn is. Against a Bulldog team that seemed to be on level footing with Auburn in terms of talent, the Tigers dominated most of the series. That's certainly a good sign for the future.
WHAT WENT RIGHT?
Two-out hitting -- Against LSU, the Auburn bats came through in the clutch by scoring runs very late in the game. Against State, the clutch hitting came in the form of pushing runs across with two outs. The Tigers scored 14 two-out runs against Bulldog pitching over the weekend. Whether it's late in a game or late in an inning, Auburn's hitters never count themselves out. That kind of confidence will carry the team a long way.
Starting pitching -- Derek Varnadore, Will Kendall and Daniel Koger did a fine job of keeping State from taking commanding leads, and all three worked quality innings, allowing the Auburn bullpen to avoid overextension. The trio combined to throw 18.1 innings and allowed six earned runs on 16 hits and six walks. Those aren't overpowering numbers, but they're more than good enough to give a team with an offense as good as Auburn's a chance to win plenty of games.
Offense found early success -- Just as Auburn's pitching kept State from taking command of momentum early in games, the Tigers' bats put pressure on the Bulldogs and got into their bullpen by scoring some runs in the first few innings. Auburn scored 12 runs in the first three innings, which caused MSU starters to last just 13.2 innings -- that includes seven innings from Stratton. All in all, Auburn fans couldn't ask for much better performance at the plate by the orange and blue.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
Defense -- As good as Auburn's offense and starting pitching was, the defense -- specifically, third base -- was just as bad. The Tigers committed seven errors in the series, leading to four unearned runs. Had State's defense not been just as bad -- the Bulldogs committed six errors that led to seven unearned runs -- Auburn's miscues could have cost the Tigers the series. Auburn pitchers have been solid, but if they don't get some defensive help, it will eventually cost Auburn a few games.
Late-inning pitching -- While Varney, Kendall and Koger put Auburn into position to take early leads, the end of Auburn's bullpen tried just as hard to blow those leads. Slade Smith gave up two runs -- one earned -- in the final two innings on Friday, which proved to be the difference in the game. On Saturday, Auburn took a 10-2 lead into the ninth before Jay Wade and Dillon Ortman allowed State to score four runs and get the tying run to the plate. A defensive miscue aided the Bulldog rally, but three hits, a walk, a wild pitch and a hit batter didn't help matters. When Auburn has control late in games, the Tigers must be able to count on their bullpen to finish off opposing teams. That has been a struggle this season.
Jay Gonzalez, RF -- As the leadoff man goes, so goes the offense. Gonzo collected five hits in the series, and his patience at the plate paid off with four walks. His reaching base early caused problems for State pitching and allowed Auburn's offense to get into a rhythm. The more Gonzo can get on base, the more success the Tigers will have at the plate.
After three weeks of SEC action, Auburn is 17-11 and 6-3 in conference play. The Tigers have now won series against three teams picked in the preseason to finish ahead of them in the Western Division race. The Tigers offense and starting pitching appear to be of the quality of a team that is a serious SEC contender. If Auburn can get better in the field and in late-game pitching situations, the Tigers will continue to stay near the top of the SEC standings. We've seen how good this Auburn team is. Only a true meltdown can keep it from reaching the SEC Tournament and an NCAA Regional. And if the Tigers can continue their conference success, winning the West and possibly hosting a regional are not out of the question. A year that was supposed to be reserved for rebuilding on the Plains is turning out to be a very pleasant surprise.