Game 1: Alabama 10, Auburn 6
Game 2: Alabama, Auburn 3
Game 3: Alabama 6, Auburn 2
Going into the three-game set against Alabama, the series had all the makings to be a trap for Auburn. The Tigers were riding high after three consecutive series wins to open SEC play, and the Tide wasn't garnering much respect with a 1-8 record entering Friday's game. But Alabama's struggles had largely been related to youth, not a lack of talent, and the series would be played in Tuscaloosa. Any rational Auburn fan could see it was possible that the Tigers might slip up and lose their first series of the SEC season.
Not even the rational fans foresaw the disaster that ensued.
Game 1 was a bit fluky, with Alabama scoring seven of its 10 runs on just two hits. Nevertheless, Auburn put itself in the position of giving up those runs. Game 2 was shaky throughout, but it appeared that the Tigers would squeak out a win to even things up. A two-run, walk-off homer from Taylor Dugas with two outs quickly put those thoughts to bed. In Game 3, Auburn needed to regroup and take a game to avoid a five-alarm, worst-case-scenario catastrophe. Instead, the Tigers rolled over and lost the final game against the Tide without much of a fight.
WHAT WENT RIGHT?
Ryan Tella stayed hot -- You can't really place much blame for the Meltdown in T-Town on Auburn's center fielder and best hitter. Tella was 7-for-14 over the course of the three games and did not commit an error. His average is up to .400 for the season, and frankly, Tella was the only Auburn player that managed to consistently make things happen against the Tide.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
Hmm, where to begin?
Defense, especially at third base -- The major Achilles' heel for Auburn didn't show any signs of going away, as the Tigers committed four errors in Tuscaloosa. Two of those were committed by third baseman Justin Bryant. Whether it's Bryant or Zach Alvord, Auburn just can't find a man that can provide any competent defense at the hot corner. The Tigers have 48 errors on the season, trailing only Vanderbilt in that department. If John Pawlowski can't drill it into his players heads that they MUST get better in the field, Auburn will continue to lose games that it should win.
Late-game pitching -- Auburn's second-biggest problem this year also made an appearance against Alabama. The Tigers' bullpen has been solid in middle-inning work, but when Auburn is trying to close out games -- or in this case, stay in games -- it's been mediocre at best. Auburn pitchers gave up nine runs over the final three innings in the series against Alabama. It's hard to win -- against good teams or bad -- when you just don't have the ability to finish a game without incident. Auburn doesn't seem to have that ability right now.
Hitting in the clutch -- This is the area that had allowed the Tigers to get off to such a hot start in SEC play. In both two-out and late-game situations, Auburn had shown plenty of fight at the plate and pushed across crucial runs that led to wins. Against the Tide, Auburn took a big step back. The Tigers left 27 men on base in the series and scored one lonely run in the seventh inning or later. Auburn was especially frustrating at the plate on Friday, when the Tigers managed 16 hits (!) but only six runs. Before the 'Bama series, clutch hitting had developed into one of Auburn's strengths. Hopefully, the impotence against the Tide will prove to be the exception and not the rule going forward.
Will Kendall's injury -- Auburn has been fortunate that it hasn't had to deal with too many injury problems this season. Well, the injury bug finally bit the Tigers in a big way on Saturday. Kendall was mowing down the Tide lineup -- one unearned run on five hits -- when he was forced to leave the game after 4.2 innings. He appeared to suffer some sort of elbow strain, which depending on the severity, could keep him out for quite a while. Auburn has depth on the mound, but Kendall has proven to be the Tigers' best pitcher against SEC competition. Losing him would be a tough pill to swallow.
Ryan Tella, CF -- As we mentioned earlier, Tella was the only Tiger to really step up throughout the weekend. It's nice to see that even when Auburn has an off-series, TELLLLAAAAAA still brings it.
Auburn is a good team. Series wins in the first three weeks of SEC play, including victories over Ole Miss and a suddenly scorching LSU team, prove that. But the Tigers aren't great. And teams that aren't great can't afford to overlook anyone. Auburn rolled into Tuscaloosa with a little too much swagger, and an Alabama team with something to prove hit the Tigers in the mouth. Now, it's all about recovery and making sure a weekend like that doesn't happen again. In three games, Auburn has gone from having dreams of a Western Division title to facing a must-win series on the road against a desperate Vanderbilt team. Following the Vandy series, Auburn hosts the two-time defending national champion South Carolina Gamecocks. If the Tigers can't regain their confidence and stop the bleeding, this season could unravel very quickly.
The sweep in Tuscaloosa is going to prove to be the turning point in Auburn's season. If Pawlowski and his players take it as a wake-up call, we should see a focused team come back strong and claim a favorable seed in the SEC Tournament. If Auburn's confidence is shot and the Tigers can't recover, there's a decent chance they miss the trip to Hoover altogether. Pawlowski's boys certainly have the talent to win, but Auburn's results from here on out will come down to the Tigers' mental strength. We still think Auburn will finish strong and earn spots in the SEC and NCAA Tournaments. Making sure that happens begins this weekend in Nashville.