For the first weekend of Auburn baseball, the biggest surprise -- or rather, the most pleasant surprise -- was the starting pitching. All three starters posted solid outings, and they, combined with the relievers, left Auburn with a sub-1 ERA after three games. You really can't ask for much more.
The key to the grid is pretty simple. K/F for strikeouts/foul outs, B for walks, G for ground outs, P for pop outs/fly outs/line outs (basically any elevated out), S for steal, E for error, C for caught stealing, and 1-4 for single/double/triple/home run. Green is good, yellow is danger, blue is the best.
Ortman's initial outing wasn't bad. Innings-wise, it was pretty low, but you still have to keep in mind that he's a reliever (a short reliever) who's being stretched out to a starter. What I liked about Ortman was that he settled into a groove and was able to mix his pitches pretty well. He didn't just pound the strike zone every time. The inning I really want to highlight was his most important. In the third inning, the bottom of the Indiana State order (Tyler Wampler at 9 and Landon Curry at 1) managed to get two solid singles off of Ortman. Curry's single advanced Wampler to third, and after a Curry steal, Ortman was faced with two men in scoring position and only one out. He need a strikeout. A ground out likely would have scored Wampler; a fly out definitely would have.
In the past, this was where Ortman would get wild and come unglued. Instead, he buckled down and got ahead of Connor McClain, before finishing him off with a strikeout looking. The difference in the inning was Jacob Hayes. Ortman fell behind quickly and faced a tough situation. A walk would have loaded the bases for Indiana State's cleanup hitter, Mike Fitzgerald, a guy who ended up hitting .400 for the weekend with six RBI. Ortman gritted down, battled back and finished the inning with a crucial ground out.
Michael O'Neal took the only loss the weekend. With a lack of run support, O'Neal was unable to fully loosen up and take the risks on the mound that make him one of the better pitchers in the league and one of the best pitchers on the Auburn staff.
O'Neal's main struggle was evident. He was unable to consistently get a first-pitch strike and spent most of the day battling back from 1-0 counts.
The big inning was the fourth. O'Neal was struggling to find the strike zone. After back-to-back walks and an RBI single, Auburn was trailing for the first time all season, and the flood gates were getting ready to open. But O'Neal pitched like a veteran, getting a huge double play and a ground out to end the threat.
That scare refocused O'Neal, and he came out firing in the fifth and sixth innings. I honestly believe that if Auburn was leading or providing any run support, O'Neal probably could have pitched the seventh inning until he got into trouble. Unfortunately, Auburn made mistakes on offense and kept stranding runners. That left O'Neal as the only pitcher with a black mark from this weekend.
The debut everyone was looking forward to was the Keegan Thompson's on Sunday. The freshman didn't disappoint. He ended up with nine strikeouts, the most for an Auburn pitcher in a game since Jon Luke Jacobs K'd 11 in 2012. So what was the secret?
For Thompson, it was two things: location and economy. Keegan came out first and consistently threw strikes. He rarely feel behind, and against some hitters, he was easily able to use just three pitches. His key inning came in the fifth. Pitching to Bryan Daniello, Thompson hit a bit of a blip and lost him after starting him down 0-2 -- three straight balls and then a prayer pitch that Daniello stroked for a double. Combine that with a wild pitch and an RBI single allowed to Griffin Garabedian and a walk to Connor David, and Thompson suddenly had a crack in the armor.
It looked like he was unraveling a bit after falling behind to Aaron Hill 3-0. Instead, Thompson showed a little savvy. He worked back to a full count and then tried for contact the next two pitches. Ultimately Hill and then Jack Sundberg both chased pitches, and Thompson got them both swinging to end the inning. It was a huge pair of outs and little glimpse at why Thompson was so highly revered out of high school
This weekend, Auburn will need more the same. Ortman needs to be economical and be able to last more than five innings. That should be pretty easy against Arkansas-Pine Bluff. O'Neal needs to come out of the gate swinging, pound the strike zone against Cal and, more importantly, get solid defense behind him. The Bears will force errors, and O'Neal may be bittten by the unearned run bug if the Tigers aren't careful. Finally, Thompson just needs to be Thompson. Throw strikes, and make East Tennessee State look foolish.