Consistency. That’s the key for Auburn going forward and is going to be the key to have a successful SEC campaign. After posting their best offensive performance in the Sunday finale against Presbyterian, the Tigers' bats fell cold in a rain postponed Capital City Classic against Alabama.
The Capital City Classic showed what will keep Auburn in most, if not all, games this season: steady starting pitching. Justin Camp was solid, going 6 1/3 innings and allowing three earned runs. It wasn’t a dominating outing, but Camp kept Auburn in the game, and Alabama didn’t lead until a two-out error in the top of the ninth. That error, where a Connor Short throw to first sailed high, is going to sting a little bit.
The story, however, wasn’t the error; it was the lack of offense by Auburn. The bats were dead silent. Outside of Dan Glevenyak’s two-run home run, the hits were hard to come by. Credit Alabama: The Tide kept the Auburn offense in check and prevented big innings. It was a recipe for success and it worked well for the arch-rivals.
Auburn is going to get good starting pitching. The Tigers have shown that all season. Outside of a couple of noticeable blips (Dillon Ortman vs. Presbyterian, for example), the Auburn starting pitching has consistently gone about six innings and given up three or fewer runs. That’s encouraging to see. Even after some rotation shuffling and a couple of experiments, Auburn has determined a winning formula with a determined Friday (Ortman), Saturday (Keegan Thompson) and Sunday (Michael O’Neal) rotation, with a midweek stalwart (Camp) and a couple of guys trying to crack into the fray (Kevin Davis, Trey Wingenter).
Right now, there are two things that are preventing Auburn from getting over the hump, two fixable elements that are keeping the Tigers from getting over the hump and positioning itself into the middle of the pack in the SEC: consistent hitting and consistent relief.
Let’s start with the consistent hitting. When Auburn clicks, it’s scoring about six runs per game. When the Tigers are losing? Only two runs per game. The hits are about the same (seven in losses, eight in wins), the runners left on base is about the same (around nine per loss, about eight per win). What is the difference? It’s pretty simple. The LOBsters are big, but the lack of timely hitting is even worse.
The bullpen has been hit or miss. Auburn's relievers haven’t coughed up huge leads, but they haven’t exactly been overpowering. There have been some standouts like Jacob Milliman and Jay Wade. There have been some surprising disappointments, as well. Terrance Dedrick hasn’t been as lights out as he was last year, Reid Carter and Daniel Koger have struggled slightly, and both Davis and Wingenter had average spot starts earlier in the season. Those are easy fixes in my opinion. Carter and Koger will come around with a few more innings. Davis and Wingenter won’t have many more midweek starts to battle for and can focus on long-relief roles. Dedrick will come along as the weather warms up. I know it sounds crazy but if last year is any indication, when it’s hot, Dedrick is hot. Still, Dedrick stands out (after this weekend) as the biggest issue for Auburn. The last three appearances’ for Terrance have looked shaky. You can blame the Capital City Classic on the error by Short if you want. However, the damage on Saturday and Sunday was self-inflicted, a near blown save on Saturday and a three-run blown save on Sunday. Dedrick has not been sharp. There should probably be a serious discussion about going to Milliman as the closer for a little bit, at least until Dedrick can get his bearings back. Milliman possesses many of the same tools that Dedrick does: experienced, high K, sinkerball pitcher. Milliman could (in theory) excel in that role. We won’t know unless he’s given a shot there.
Those were the issues going in and out of the Capital City Classic. When the series against Mercer opened on Friday, I was honestly expecting the worse. The regression against Alabama was worrisome, and Auburn was still lacking an identity. Mercer is a series that I had circled for a long time as a make or break weekend for the Tigers. The Bears were an NCAA Tournament team last year and came in with only two losses and a high RPI. It was a team that was tough and had set itself apart from the other mid-majors. It was a team that could easily come in and sweep Auburn if the Tigers scuffled just a little bit. Mercer had the offense, the pitching, the experience and all the elements for a disastrous weekend for Auburn.
Luckily, that wasn’t the case. Auburn finished Sunday with a three-game sweep highlighted by dominant starting pitching, consistent offense and even some late-inning drama. There was a whole bunch of good and not a ton of bad, and it showed Auburn as a team that was turning the corner at the right time.
Auburn got the timely hits, the Tigers stole, they didn’t get into extended offensive funks. The starting pitching got out of jams, pitched to contact and cruised for all three outings.
Offensively, Auburn was paced by Jordan Ebert and Damek Tomscha who had their best offensive weekends so far. Ebert was especially hot, going 6-for-8 with three walks, two steals and two RBI. His leadoff single in the bottom of the ninth on Sunday led to the game-winning run, and he backed up his weekend at the plate with some solid defensive work out in left field. Damek was an RBI machine and showed some nice power, hitting home runs on Friday and Sunday. Both in the bottom of the first inning.
There wasn’t a real weak spot in the lineup, and Auburn was able to exploit a few Mercer miscues and keep the pressure on all weekend with constant steals, squeezes, sacrifices and hit-and-runs. It was Golloway baseball at its best. It’s still not at 100 percent, but slowly and surely, Auburn is coming around offensively, and this weekend was a welcome sight to see after the pitiful output in the Capital City Classic.
Now, Auburn is set for SEC Play. Honestly, it’s a crapshoot in the conference right now. The good teams are very good: LSU, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Ole Miss are rolling. There are a few surprises in the East (Kentucky/Tennessee), and the West, right now, looks a bit more open than normal. Texas A&M, Auburn’s opener, will come into Plainsman Park ranked after a series win over Lousiana Tech. Arkansas has scuffled but is still winning. Alabama beat Auburn in Capital City Classic and can’t really be judged after it throttled Mississippi Valley State. Mississippi State had a disastrous trip to Arizona. Auburn needs to use this weekend to set itself up for a solid SEC campaign.
As Auburn begins SEC play, these first three series (A&M, Tennessee, Missouri) will set the tone for the entire league campaign. Missouri is, well, Missouri. The Columbia Tigers can be dangerous and can’t be overlooked. Tennessee will probably enter the Auburn series ranked and rolling and could be primed for a weekend win. If Auburn can take care of business against Texas A&M at home, then the Tigers could honestly and realistically be looking at starting SEC action at 7-2 and having their best opening to conference play in years. It all starts on Friday.
Before that, Auburn has one more tune-up in the midweek. The Tigers got more solid hitting and pitching in a 6-1 Tuesday night win at Kennesaw State, and Tomscha and Ebert were great again. A revenge game against Alabama State looks like a trap game on paper, and Auburn can’t overlook it. The earlier loss to ASU may have helped Auburn and could keep the Tigers focused on the game in front of them and not on the weekend. That’s a good thing.
So, how can Auburn beat Texas A&M? The Tigers can’t beat themselves. That’s the biggest issue.
- Auburn had some defensive miscues late in games against Mercer, and the error against Alabama was extremely costly. Short seems to have worked himself into a platoon role at third base and his defense is OK, but he's still having some freshman issues. The flip flop of Damon Haecker and Glevenyak at short and second is working tremendously, and the platooning of Tomscha at first base is helping him swing the bat better. The defense is pretty much set with Blake Logan, Jackson Burgreen and Daniel Robert now in role-player and first-bat-available positions. If Auburn can limit the errors, the Tigers will win the weekend.
- The offense needs to strike early. In the wins Friday and Saturday, Auburn pitchers were staked to early leads that allowed them to loosen up and pitch with less urgency. The bigger leads also allowed Thompson and Ortman to go deep in the games and limit the number of innings for the bullpen. All of that success in the starting pitching builds off of the offense. When it scores and gets comfortable, then the starting pitching can relax a little bit and not pitch with as much pressure.
- The bullpen needs to use the midweek games as a tune up and tryout. With two games this week, that means more innings and more chances for guys like Koger, Wingenter and Davis to improve. It's also a chance for Milliman to possibly move nearer to a closing role. If Auburn can jump out on Alabama State early, then the bullpen can log some solid and needed innings of relief.
- Limit Wade and Trey Cochran-Gill in the midweek. The two best pitchers out of the bullpen will probably need to be a full strength going into the A&M series. Wade worked just 2/3 of an inning against Kennesaw, and Cochran-Gill got the night off.
- Keep the bats hot. Grier, Haecker and Austin have cooled slightly, but Tomscha, Ebert and Ryan Tella are heating up. A good Auburn offense will be able to easily account for one or two guys having an off night. Auburn needs to be aggressive at the plate and each hitter needs to know what his specialty is. Unselfish baseball is the best way to play in Golloway's system.
- Keep rolling. At this point, Auburn needs to get on as hot a streak as it can and seize the momentum. The four-game winning streak is Auburn's longest of the year, and the offense and starting pitching is clicking in such a way that it could really ride the wave of momentum.
Five games in seven days is a lot for Auburn. This week, with the school out on spring break and the focus being squarely on baseball, should be the best time for Auburn to hit its stride and hit SEC play with a fury. The Tigers are 1-0 so far this week; no reason to let off the gas now.