Game 1: Auburn 12, Tennessee 5
Game 2: Auburn 12, Tennessee 3
Game 3: Auburn 11, Tennessee 4
Now, that's the Auburn baseball team we've been looking for. After losing eight of nine SEC games and plummeting to a tie for ninth place in the conference, the Tigers came out and throttled Tennessee three consecutive days to claim a much-needed sweep. Just when it looked like Auburn's season was going off the rails, John Pawlowski's team pulled it together and put itself in much better position to advance to postseason play. Almost all of the problems Auburn had been having over the last three weeks seemed to disappear this weekend, and the Tigers once again looked like a team that could beat any team on any given day. In fact, it's no surprise that Auburn's first sweep of 2012 was easily its best three-game performance this year.
WHAT WENT RIGHT?
The offense woke up in a big way -- It would be a bit of an understatement to say that Auburn had been struggling to push runs across during its abysmal three-week stretch. The line-up was shuffled, different players were given some at-bats, and nothing seemed to work. It's safe to say that the adjustments made before this series paid off in a big way. Auburn outscored Tennessee 35-12 in the series, with the 35 runs nearly equaling the 37 the Tigers scored against Alabama, Vanderbilt and South Carolina combined. The Auburn bats were able to explode for two main reasons ...
The return of clutch hitting -- The first reason the Tigers were able to virtually score at will against the Vols was because their ability to pick up timely hits returned after nearly a month's hiatus. In two-out situations, Auburn scored 17 runs, nearly half its total for the weekend. And in the final three innings, the Tigers scored 12 times. Producing in those two situations was a big reason why Auburn was able to get off to a hot start in SEC play, and the lack of production played a major role in the Tigers' recent skid. It's nice to see the offense back on the upswing.
A change in strategy: less small-ball -- The second big reason for Auburn's offensive success was a change of the offensive attack. We don't have a problem with small ball. It's certainly a proven strategy, and it has its place. The problem for Pawlowski and Auburn was that small-ball had become too big a part of the offensive game plan. Frankly, Auburn was giving away too many outs, and taking the bat out of too many good hitters' hands. Against Tennessee, Pawlowski eased off the "get 'em on, get 'em over, get 'em in" strategy and let his hitters swing away. The result: 19 extra-base hits that helped lead to the aforementioned 35 runs. At certain times, it looked like Auburn had found a stash of the old, pre-2011 aluminum bats.
Sound defensive play -- Auburn's biggest problem all season has been its performance in the field. Errors and unearned runs have plagued the Tigers and cost the team multiple wins. That didn't happen against the Vols. Auburn committed two errors over the weekend that led to two unearned runs. Playing defense that well is the single biggest thing Auburn can do improve its prospects of winning as the season winds down.
Derek Varnadore, bullpen specialist -- Since picking up an Opening Day win with an 11-strikeout performance, the Varnasaur had been struggling mightily in his Friday starting role. After his last start against South Carolina on April 20, he still had only one win, and his ERA had ballooned to 6.02. Pawlowski gave Varney a shot out of the bullpen in the midweek game against Troy, and his solid pitching led to the same plan against Tennessee. Varnadore responded incredibly well and picked up a win on Friday and a save on Sunday. His line for the weekend was five innings, one hit, zero runs, one walk and four strikeouts. The entire staff had a solid weekend, but Varnadore was the star.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
Trey Cochran-Gill might not be ready for prime time -- Cochran-Gill has been given a few of recent midweek starts, and the freshman has looked good. But against an SEC opponent Sunday, he ran into trouble pretty quickly. The Vols teed off on the young righty and scored three runs on three hits and a walk in 1 2/3 innings. With Varnadore now in the bullpen, Cochran-Gill will likely get more weekend starts. He needs to make some improvement before he can be an asset to the Tigers' weekend pitching staff.
Cullen Wacker, LF -- This award really could go to a number of different Tigers. Varnadore, catcher Blake Austin, third baseman Zach Alvord and right fielder Jay Gonzalez all had great weekends and deserve mention, but Wacker was playing on a completely different level. The left fielder was benched on Friday due to a violation of team rules. If you follow Wacker on twitter, you likely saw some recent tweets criticizing Auburn coaching which made the suspension not all that surprising. Who knows if Wacker and Pawlowski now see eye to eye or if Wacker was just taking out his frustrations against Tennessee. Whatever the inspiration, it worked. In two games, he was 7 of 9 with six runs scored and two RBIs. In addition to his impressive hitting, Wacker made a couple of great plays in the field to keep Tennessee runs off the board. It's tough to play much better than Wacker did on Saturday and Sunday.
As badly as Auburn was reeling going into the weekend, the Tigers absolutely had to win the series and probably needed to find a way to sweep Tennessee. Well, ask and ye shall receive. With the three wins, Auburn jumped from a tie for ninth in the SEC to a tie for sixth with Ole Miss and Mississippi State, two teams against which Auburn holds the tiebreaker. The Vols aren't a great team, so it's a stretch to expect the same type of output going into Amen Corner against Georgia, Arkansas and Florida. Nevertheless, it's encouraging to see that Auburn has remembered how to play winning baseball after playing so poorly against the dregs of the conference earlier this month. There's still plenty of work to be done before Auburn can feel good about a tournament berth, and it begins next weekend in Athens. But after winning three SEC games in convincing fashion, Auburn should be able to put together enough wins to make it to Hoover. If the Tigers can win the series against Georgia, we'll start to feel pretty good about their chances of making it to an NCAA regional.