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Auburn baseball weekend wrap-up: Tough losses lead to tough questions

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Auburn struggled in its past four games. Those struggles have led to some fans questioning the methods of head coach Sunny Golloway.

Zach Bland/Auburn University photo

There’s not much to say about the state of Auburn baseball right now. The Tigers had four games in the last week and lost three of them. Whatever high most fans were feeling after going 2-1 in the Snowbird Classic quickly crashed down to Earth like Sputnik following the final, and perhaps most painful, loss on Sunday.

Fair warning, recapping this weekend is going to be about more than just recapping the box scores and the write-ups. Instead, this weekend served as a jumping off point for a more pointed and internal discussion about Auburn baseball, the future of the program, the failings of the past and the changes that are being and will be implemented for the 2014 season.

I was able to catch three of the games in person this weekend; one from the parking deck and two others from inside Plainsman Park. What I saw was a bit surprising. I saw crowds of better than expected for all three games. That tells me, very quickly and very assuredly, that the Auburn fan base has bought in to all of the preseason hype from head coach Sunny Golloway and the marketing efforts of the athletic department. Fans turned out. Fans came hungry for a winner. Fans left with a bitter taste.

That’s the first thing to touch on: the fan support. One of the biggest obstacles that Auburn baseball has faced in the past is the lack of fan support. Sure, there are a die-hard group of fans and supporters who will come out to every game. The Auburn Diamond Club does a great job of nurturing and encouraging this behind-the-scenes interaction. However, the majority of the time, the ballpark is about a third to maybe a half full.

Can you blame the students? Not really. The student support waxes and wanes depending on the class schedule, and it’s hard to put any of the blame on them. Most SEC Schools have designated student areas that are outside the gates, the Left Field Lounge in Starkville being the most famous of these. These allow students to come, mingle, probably (gasp) drink and generally make baseball a more social experience. That’s what many students want, and that’s what Auburn doesn’t really offer. Some have made their own pseudo student sections and tailgating areas on the parking deck and behind the left field fence. It is changing and Auburn is making an effort. So, I’m not going to blame the students.

There are so many factors that are at play here. Auburn isn’t like other SEC Schools. The town and the normal population can’t really support filling up stadiums and arenas on a consistent basis. The population just isn’t really conducive to that. The staff in the ticket office and in the marketing department are left with the unenviable job of filling up venues with a limited pool of potential customers.

Still, Auburn fans came out. That means, to me at least, that those efforts paid off and Auburn has won the early battle to create fan interest and support. In marketing, you have three categories of consumers: loyalists, seekers, and the stationary. The loyalists are going to come out no matter who is playing and no matter who is coming. The stationary are immovable. They are people who don’t care for baseball, don’t care for Auburn, and shouldn’t be bothered. That middle ground, that big and expansive and nebulous group of seekers? That’s who Auburn is targeting. Those are the new baseball fans. Those are the new Auburn fans. Those are the fans that be transformed into loyalists. That’s what Auburn is looking for.

Auburn got the fans into the gates. It convinced a good number of seekers to search out and give Auburn baseball a try. How was that rewarded? With a blowout loss to a SWAC team from 50 minutes down the road and four runs in three games over the weekend.

Some of the fans may never come back.

The less said about the loss to Alabama State, the better. Bottom line? Auburn didn’t have any offense and stranded runners in a similar fashion to the Ohio State loss. The dam broke late and the Tigers fell apart, committing costly errors and letting the game get out of hand. It was frustrating and not the way you want to start your first game at home in 2014.

The Arkansas-Pine Bluff game had a similar feel. The only difference was that the Golden Lions were equally inept on offense, and Auburn starter Dillon Ortman was outstanding on the mound. Ortman was masterful, getting a career high in strikeouts (11) and innings pitched (eight). Auburn survived with a 2-1 win. It was unsettling, but a win was a win, and Auburn had a bigger game on Saturday against Cal.

Against the Golden Bears, however, Auburn came out flat again. The Tigers were shut out for the second straight Saturday and once again gave starter Michael O’Neal zero run support. O’Neal has pitched well and, honestly, has pitched well enough to win.

The finale against East Tennessee State was supposed to serve as a chance for Auburn to right the ship. Get some momentum and get ready for another week. Keep the focus on winning the weekends and come out with a winning record. Freshman starter Keegan Thompson was incredible. Thompson wasn’t as reliant on the strikeout as he was against UConn and was limiting his fly ball outs. He was putting the ball in play, and his fielders were making plays. Unfortunately for Keegan, his luck and good pitching ran out. ETSU benefited from a two-base error to open the ninth, and a sacrifice bunt to moved the runner into scoring position. Auburn turned to closer Terrance Dedrick to shut the door and get the save. Instead, ETSU got an RBI single and the game was headed to extra innings. In the 10th, ETSU got a leadoff triple off of a misplayed ball in left field. That was the difference. All ETSU needed was a sac fly ,and the Buccaneers had their first lead of the afternoon. The loss was disheartening and eye opening for the Tigers.

More pointedly than that were the comments by Coach Sunny Golloway in the postgame:

"You have to be backing up Glevenyak on that groundball. You can't assume he's going to make a play. Be moving hard because it's a one-run ballgame. When the ball gets away from him, we're not moving 100 percent from the outfield. We let him get to second and that run ends up tying it up. You can't dive for a single and turn it into a triple into a tie ballgame. That's just a cardinal rule. That's a returning player that does that. That's disheartening because they don't score - two popups with our closer in the game."

That would be in reference to Hunter Kelley in left field.

"Our veteran players are making mistakes. (Ryan) Tella has the talent to put our team on his shoulders if he wants to. I thought, reading his Tweets, he was going to get a little fire in his belly and get going. Today, he gets one hit but they are not on really good swings. He's a talented guy. He has a chance to put us on his shoulders and go.

"We are trying to give some of our returning players an opportunity to contribute and asking them to be ready when they are called. To be quite honest with you, there has been so much lack of work ethic, lack of team first that they're not ready when they are called upon. The proof is in the pudding. That's unfortunate. It's a learning experience for all of us, and it's part of building our program. The mistakes that we are seeing now are not mistakes that are going to be repeated in this program."

Obviously, that’s about Ryan Tella.

"Our dugout has not been very good. It's been really negative -- guys not pulling for each other, guys not fighting for each pitch, guys not being in the ballgame. It's just not been very good. The coaches were talking to me about it last night.

"Today we had a really good baseball environment in our dugout. We will build on that and continue to move forward. We didn't make any wholesale changes as far as not allowing somebody to suit up, but if we're going to end up having some cancer in our clubhouse we are going to end up having to cut that out and move forward. I don't want that to happen. I pray that doesn't happen. We are all pretty good people, but we have to continue to push hard to make some changes. It's hurting us."

Now we get to both the good and the about Golloway. He has been criticized by many by not taking any blame or onus on himself, but instead refocusing it on other coaches or on the players. That’s a bit gruff, and it’s a style that most Auburn fans aren’t accustomed to in a coach. Some people will label this as placing blame and not taking responsibility. Others will counter and say that it’s good to get called out and that if it makes the team better overall then the approach is worth it.

Golloway mentioned on Sunday that he didn’t want the worst-case scenario to happen, and he didn’t want to cut anyone.

Well, it did.

Auburn has lost three players so far -- Kelly, who was cut, Patrick Savage and Chase Williamson, who left voluntarily -- and possibly more will leave the team in the near future, according to reports to the paysites. All three were upperclassmen.

Some Auburn fans have an issue with calling a player out by name and criticizing him in the media. That style rubs some fans the wrong way. However, why is it not OK for one coach (Golloway) to do, but another -- say, Steve Spurrier -- does it and it’s considered "cute" and "folksy" and "just Coach being Coach."? Honestly, it’s a non-issue. Some coaches operate certain ways. They want players to be held accountable both inside and outside the clubhouse. Personally, that bit of honesty is refreshing. Instead of using "coach-speak," you’ve got a coach who can directly pinpoint where and why he thinks there is an issue and will be vocal about that issue. Is this placing blame? Is it not taking personal responsibility? Sure, it can be viewed as that. To me, I view it as giving a direct answer to a direct question. Other fans would argue that issues and criticisms like that should be kept behind closed doors.  I don’t really have an opinion on that. Part of me thinks that, yes, this should be handled internally. The other part saw more than seven years of it being handled internally to no avail.

I’m not sure of the easiest way to say this, but Auburn fans can’t start having buyer’s remorse on Golloway and his style just seven games into the season. The system has worked in the past and honestly, with time, will work at Auburn. However, getting to the point when the system can be effective is going to be the hardest thing for Auburn fans, both diehard and non, to watch. There are going to be some ugly losses on and off the field. There are going to be times of frustration and times of head-scratching and probably times of outright disgust. However, there is an end goal in mind. That goal is to rebuild Auburn back to where it was under Hal Baird. Most Auburn fans probably don’t -- or can’t -- realize that Baird stopped coaching in 2000. That was 14 years ago. It’s been longer than that since Auburn went to Omaha.

This was not going to be an overnight fix. It never was. However, if you’re going to establish a system and style and a mindset for change, you shouldn’t wait.

Here’s what I know and the thinking that I cling to in all of this:

I’ve seen positive changes to the outside of the Auburn baseball program already. I’ve seen a commitment to facilities and to the fan base and to the program in general. Golloway has a plan, and Auburn has hired him to carry that plan through. Honestly, it won’t be pretty at times.

What I can say and say with some certainty is that things will change, and they will change, ultimately, for the better. Auburn is close, dangerously close actually, to getting over the hump offensively. I’m not going to jump ship after two weeks, and neither should the fans. Instead, the fans (and I) should focus even more on Tuesday’s game against Alabama A&M and the upcoming series against Presbyterian. Auburn has made some drastic changes. If they work, we will all be reassured that the correct choice was made. If they don’t? If Auburn keeps an anemic offense? Then yes, start to worry. Don’t panic, but start to worry. Until then? Just keep calm and keep your fingers crossed.