For the future of Auburn baseball in 2013, and, honestly, for the future of head coach John Pawowski, the Auburn-Georgia series represents the beginning of the most important stretch of games for the Tigers. A 4-3 win Friday night was a good start, but Auburn can't let up in a doubleheader Saturday.
The goals for Auburn are obvious: make the SEC Tournament, but more importantly, make the NCAA Tournament. One isn't happening without the other. Additionally, with the Tigers' pretty weak non-conference schedule, Auburn will need to make up any ground they can RPI wise.
Let's talk RPI first. Auburn currently has an unofficial RPI of 38 and a strength of schedule (SOS) of 19. That's not bad. What's bad is the 4-10 record against the RPI top 50. Thankfully, two of those games came this weekend, so Auburn is trending positively. It also helps that the RPI has risen from the initial ranking of 104.
What can Auburn do to improve its RPI. First things first, don't lose to teams like UGA (RPI 130), Samford (146) and Missouri (124). Auburn has a major chance to boost its RPI with series against Ole Miss (18), Mississippi State (12) and Florida (15), and two of those series are on the road, meaning the Tigers would get a little bit of an extra boost.
Secondly, Auburn needs to root for some of the teams it has beaten to keep winning -- teams like College of Charleston (58), Indiana State (93) and Southern Miss (107). The better they are down the stretch, the better it will look for Auburn.
Really, though, it comes down to the SEC series that remain. Auburn faces winnable series in each of its remaining SEC games. I know that seems like high talk when you are talking about Florida, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Arkansas, but look at the numbers. Auburn has played four SEC series. The SEC records of those opponents? 36-12. The remaining SEC opponents? 29-44. Auburn, despite only winning four SEC games so far, is still within a series of A&M, Ole Miss and Mississippi State in the West and Florida and Missouri in the east.
In fact, right now, Auburn only faces one team (Arkansas) that has a positive SEC record. Let's play a quick hypothetical. Say Auburn wins (but doesn't sweep) all but one of the remaining SEC series. That would put the Tigers at 11-7 down that stretch and 14-16 overall in the league. That's okay, but honestly, it's not going to cut it. Auburn really needs to be at .500 or better in conference play to make the NCAA Tournament.
That's why it starts with Georgia. The Bulldogs are bad. Really bad. Auburn is 13th in the league, and UGA is 14th. The Bulldogs sit at 12-23 overall and have some bad losses to Belmont, Georgia State, and Western Carolina. Entering the series, UGA was 4-6 in its last 10, while Auburn was 5-5. The only difference, Auburn had won four of its last five. The Bulldogs had lost three of its last six.
Auburn can, and should, take the series from Georgia. On paper, the Tigers are better. However, it's not always easy with Auburn. The Tigers finally have some consistency in the rotation with a complete left-handed staff (Conner Kendrick, who pitched well Friday night, Mike O'Neal, Will Kendall). However, UGA only normally plays three guys (Jared Walsh, Nelson Ward, Daniel Nichols) who are left-handed hitters. That's bad for the starting pitching for Auburn, better for the righty relievers. Friday night, three runs -- one earned -- scored on Kendrick, none on the bullpen.
How can Auburn finish off a series win? The pitching is there. In fact, the bullpen ERA is only 3.33 (the lowest at this point in the season since 2002). The starting staff has been solid, as well. To win, Auburn needs to get the bats going and it can't all be up to Garrett Cooper who leads the team in average, doubles, RBI, walks, slugging and home runs. Ryan Tella, Cullen Wacker and Blake Austin definitely did that Friday.
One guy who really needs to stay hot Tella. He's been moved back to the leadoff role and is currently hitting .313 after a 4-for-5 night. It's a steady improvement from where he was at the start of the year. His RBI totals will suffer at the top of the lineup, but his run production has seen a positive bump as a result. Auburn really needs to just be patient at the plate and keep guys like Dan Glevenyak (27 Ks this season), Tella (26), and Jackson Burgreen (21) from striking out as often as usual. UGA isn't a heavy strikeout team (only 225 batters struck out on the year), but they do strike out a ton (247 times, worst in the SEC). That should help Auburn.
Hits are important, pitching is important, but if there was ever a weekend when Auburn needed clean fielding? This is it. Georgia can absolutely kill themselves on the basepaths and have hit into an astounding 30 double plays this year. Field cleanly, don't give up free passes, and Auburn can sweep the series. The Tigers committed two errors and gave up two unearned runs Friday, that has to stop. The Tigers need to sweep the series.
Finally, I'm going to close with the elephant in the room. Auburn needs a series win against UGA in Plainsman Park because the last time the Dawgs were here, they avoided a sweep with one of the most disgusting comebacks (or Auburn choke jobs) that I have ever seen. I'm going to let the UGA official site describe it because, honestly, I don't remember much after the game. It was a combination of rage and disgust that had me block it out. Auburn was up, 11-5, going into the bottom of the 9th:
Georgia pinch-hitter Lance Martin and shortstop Kyle Farmer reach on walks. After retiring Zach Cone,Chase Davidson blasted his second home run of the contest, a three-run shot to centerfield off Dillon Ortman to close the gap to 11-8. It was Davidson's first two-homer game of his career. The Bulldogs loaded the bases off Ethan Wallen on a walk to Jonathan Hester, pinch-hitter Curt Powell was hit by a pitch and Carson Schilling lined a base hit to left. After a walk to Kevin Ruiz forced in Georgia's ninth run of the day, the Tigers went to the bullpen again for left-hander Sean Ray. Levi Hyams stepped in with the bases loaded, one out and the Bulldogs trailing 11-9. Hyams fell behind 1-2 and then worked a walk to bring in another run. Martin came up for the second time in the inning. Ray struck him out on on a 1-2 pitch, and it was all up to Farmer.
Farmer smashed a 1-0 offering over the green monster in left for a grand slam, the first by a Bulldog since 2009. For Farmer, it was his seventh home run of the year and gave him a team-leading 48 RBIs. Suddenly, the Bulldogs led, 14-11, courtesy of a nine-run outburst. Cone was retired to send it to the bottom of the ninth. In the bottom of the ninth, Auburn got a leadoff single from Wacker. Closer Tyler Maloof then struck out Justin Hargett and got Justin Fradejas to bounce into game-ending double play. Maloof got the win to improve to 2-1, while Wallen fell to 4-4 as much of the Plainsman Park crowd of 3,080 left shaking their heads in a contest that lasted 3:35.
Auburn finished the season 29-29 and missed the NCAA Tournament by one game.
So, now, it's 2013. It's a different team. A different look. Auburn has a chance to finish strong in the SEC and make the NCAA Tournament. Friday was a good start, but the Tigers need to keep it going. War Eagle.