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Baseball Thoughts: What Happened?

Baseball is a funny game. Three weeks ago, I would have said that Auburn has a legitimate shot at hosting a regional for the second time in three years. Base hits were finding their way through holes, pitchers were getting more calls, and everything was falling into place for Auburn to win games. Things changed quickly. Even at that point, it was obvious that this Auburn team had some shortcomings on defense. The only difference is that they were getting more clutch pitching and hitting to mask those shortcomings. The perfect example: When the bases were loaded on Friday in the first inning, Justin Bryant hit a bullet to the shortstop that resulted in a double play. Those were the type of hits that were falling when Auburn was playing winning baseball.

Baseball always has a way of evening things out because it is such a long season. Right now, Auburn is playing like the "experts" thought it would. Auburn was believed to finish last in the SEC Western division, and the Tigers are playing like a last-place team right now.

On the radio broadcast Sunday, Rod Bramblett gave an interesting statistic. He said that in Auburn's last 100 official at-bats, it had only had back-to-back hits twice. That was an eye-opener. That probably has a lot to do with the top of the lineup not producing like it once was. Once Jay Gonzalez and Creede Simpson went into a slump, coach John Pawlowski inserted Dan Glevenyak at the top of the lineup. I can understand Pawlowski's move to create some offense by shuffling the lineup, but I really liked having Gonzalez at the top of the lineup followed by Creede. There is a lot of speed there with Gonzalez and a speed/power combo behind him with Simpson. The SEC schedule is too short to allow players to get out of an extended slump, though.

Along with the top of the lineup not producing, the starting pitching has not been what it was during the first three SEC series, either. It was a bit of a surprise last year when Derek Varnadore announced he was coming back after being drafted by the Florida Marlins in the seventeenth round. He has not had his same command this year that he had last year. That has led to him only recording one win and an ERA north of five. It's hard to win series when you get into a hole on Friday. It should be interesting in the next couple of weeks to see if he remains the Friday starter. Many people were expecting Saturday to be the weak spot in the pitching rotation once Will Kendall was hurt. It turns out that Jon Luke Jacobs has been our most reliable starter the past two weeks. He did a great job on Saturday and kept Auburn close enough to win the ball game.

The first inning on Friday and Sunday were as frustrating as it gets when watching Auburn baseball. On Sunday, inexcusable defensive lapses cost Auburn four runs when Daniel Koger should have been out of the inning without being scored on. Those four runs were the difference as Auburn lost 11-7 in what was their first "must win" game of the season. It was fundamental errors like staying down on a ground ball or getting in front of the ball instead of going for the backhand play that led to the unearned runs. College baseball players in the SEC should not be having fundamental errors. Is that coaching? I am sure that Coach P teaches the correct way and stresses the fundamentals. The players are not executing right now.

Unfortunately, I think the real Auburn team is much closer to the team that it is playing like right now than the one that it was playing like in the first three SEC series. Can the Tigers still salvage the season? I think so. The Tennessee and UGA series in the next two weeks are must-wins. The Tennessee series may be a must-sweep. It can be argued that it may be better for Auburn's NCAA chances if the Tigers do not make the SEC tournament. I disagree with that because I don't see more than eight teams reaching the NCAA tournament from the SEC. If Auburn is not in the top ten in their own conference, then it should not make the NCAA tournament. Auburn needs to make the SEC tournament and win a game, if not two. Regardless, it will be an interesting ride the rest of the way.