Game 1: South Carolina 12, Auburn 5
Game 2: South Carolina 5, Auburn 3
Game 3: South Carolina 11, Auburn 7
Three weeks ago, Auburn was coming off its third consecutive series win to open SEC play. The Tigers were 6-3 in the conference, putting them in a tie for first in the West and a tie for second in the conference. Considering that many before the season picked Auburn to finish the season near the bottom of the conference, the Tigers' achievements to that point were quite a surprise. The 2012 campaign was supposed to be a rebuilding season on the Plains, but John Pawlowski's players had proved that they were up to the task of competing with the SEC's best.
Fast forward three weeks, and Auburn's season isn't looking so rosy. South Carolina came to town over the weekend and promptly swept the Tigers, sending Pawlowski's team to its eighth loss in nine conference games. The team that was tied for first in the SEC West three weeks ago is now tied with three other teams for ninth in the conference. A season that appeared to be reaching incredible heights has come crashing back to earth. Not only did the Gamecocks sweep the Tigers, but there was never much doubt in the outcome of any games in the series. In key situations, Carolina out-hit and out-pitched Auburn and was vastly superior in the field. For a team that had struggled earlier in the year, the two-time defending national champions sure looked like their old selves at Plainsman Park.
Now, it's gut-check time for Auburn. If the Tigers reach the SEC Tournament, they need nine more regular-season wins to ensure a winning record and NCAA postseason eligibility after their trip to Hoover. With a midweek game at Troy and Tennessee coming to town this weekend, the time to turn the season around is now.
WHAT WENT RIGHT?
Jon Luke Jacobs -- When Will Kendall was lost for the year with an elbow injury, Auburn suddenly found itself without the services of its best pitcher. Whoever was going to fill in for Kendall needed to step up and pitch well. Jacobs has done just that. He fell apart and allowed four runs in the sixth on Saturday, but before that, Jacobs was working on a one-hit shut out. In two weekend starts for Auburn, Jacobs has a 3.75 ERA and has given up just six hits in 12 innings. If he can cut down on the walks, Jacobs has the potential to be just as good as Kendall in the Saturday role.
Garrett Cooper is heating up -- Entering last week, Cooper was hitting .301 for the season. After going on a tear in five games against Troy, Alabama A&M and Carolina, the first baseman's average is up to .354. Against Gamecock pitching, Coop was 6 for 11 with a homer, three RBIs and two runs scored. Cooper staying hot at the plate would go a long way toward helping Auburn find a way to win again.
Auburn keeps fighting at the plate -- The one thing you can't say about Auburn during this tough stretch is that the team has just given up. The Tigers' bats didn't get off to very good starts against Carolina, but they certainly didn't just waive the white flag when the Gamecocks had taken control. After falling down 11-0 by the fifth inning on Friday, Auburn rallied to score five runs. And when Carolina took an 8-1 lead going into the bottom of the fifth on Sunday, the Tigers managed to score six more runs and, down 11-7 in the bottom of the ninth, had the bases loaded and three runs in before bowing out. The only way Auburn can bounce back from the last three abysmal SEC weekends is by staying mentally tough and forgetting about the hole the Tigers have dug for themselves. It's nice to see this team apparently has that capability.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
Defense, defense, defense -- The Tigers' play in the field has been a problem all year, and it was certainly no exception against Carolina. Against the Gamecocks, Auburn committed eight errors that led to eight unearned runs. At this point in the year, that is absolutely inexcusable. There is no way a team can win if it consistently plays defense that poorly. A team as talented as South Carolina doesn't need any extra chances to beat you. The Gamecocks are good enough to win on their own. If they are given so many extra chances and free runs, they'll dominate. That's what happened against Auburn. Pawlowski has to find a way to get it through his players' heads that they are playing big-time college baseball and are far too talented to be booting the ball around. That's the No. 1 thing that has to happen if Auburn is going to right the ship.
Pitching -- Auburn's pitchers have to be given a little bit of slack. It's tough to get outs when your defense is letting you down. Nevertheless, the Tigers on the mound were a let down against Carolina, too. Jacobs had a gutty performance and kept Auburn in it on Saturday, but Derek Varnadore and Daniel Koger had disastrous outings on Friday and Sunday. The two combined for a 12.27 ERA in 7.1 innings. The bullpen was much better -- 3.95 ERA in 13.2 innings -- but giving up three earned runs on Sunday really hurt Auburn's comeback chances.
Ryan Tella is cooling off -- As hot as Cooper was last week at the plate, Tella was just as cool. The center fielder entered the week batting .404, and after four hits in 14 at-bats and zero RBIs against Carolina, his average has dropped to .385. That's still a mighty fine batting average, but it's trending in the wrong direction. Tella is Auburn's best hitter and has been the catalyst for many of the Tigers' rallies throughout the year. Hopefully, this was just a bad week for Tella and he'll be hitting at a Ted Williams clip again in no time.
Little production from the leadoff spot -- The leadoff man basically has one job: Get on base and set up the rest of the offense. Dan Glevenyak wasn't able to do that vs. the Gamecocks. Yak was 3 for 13, which just isn't good enough. To make matters worse, the short stop left the bat on his shoulder and took a called third strike as the tying run to end the game on Sunday. In six SEC games at the top of Auburn's order, Yak is 6 for 24. As much as Pawlowski has been tinkering with the lineup, it wouldn't be a huge surprise to see right fielder Jay Gonzalez -- or someone else -- move into the leadoff role.
Garrett Cooper, 1B -- Cooper's performance was one of the very few bright spots in an otherwise dismal weekend. He has the size to be a big hitter for Auburn, and it looks like he's really found his stroke. Auburn needs Coop to stay hot this week and knock the ball all over the yard against Troy and Tennessee.
Let's be honest, Auburn's postseason prospects aren't looking very good right now. The top 10 teams in the SEC make it to Hoover this season, and right now, Auburn is tied with Tennessee and Vanderbilt at 7-11 for ninth in the SEC. Alabama, sitting in the conference cellar, is just one game back at 6-10. Auburn already is at a tiebreaker disadvantage with the 'Dores and Tide, so the Tigers really need to take the series from Tennessee to gain an upper leg on the Vols. Auburn still has to play at Georgia and Arkansas and host Florida, so if they lose the series against Tennessee, it's hard to imagine the Tigers overcoming two teams the hold a tiebreaker advantage and making the SEC tourney. Now, whether or not making it to Hoover is a good thing is up for debate. Yes, missing out on the tournament is a big disappointment. But if Auburn goes into the event one or two games over .500 and is eliminated with an 0-2 record, the Tigers will be ineligible for the NCAA Tournament. Even if Auburn misses out on Hoover, the Tigers will likely make the NCAA field with a winning record thanks to playing in the nation's toughest conference. Obviously, the ideal situation would be for Auburn to get back on track, make it to the SEC tourney and be in position to make the NCAAs even with an 0-2 performance in Hoover. Unfortunately, Auburn is playing its worst baseball with the toughest portion of its schedule right around the corner. That being the case, it looks doubtful that the Tigers will be playing any sort of postseason baseball.