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Auburn baseball weekend wrap-up: Making progress and finding leaders

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Auburn responded from last week's chaos with one of its best offense performances and one of its best pitching performances of the season. The two things might not have been possible without a blowout loss on Friday.

Zach Bland/Auburn University photo

Thinks are looking at little bit brighter for Auburn baseball. Yes, last week was a chaotic mess, and those losses to Alabama State, Cal and East Tennessee State will sting for a while. Yes, the loss of the three players from the roster will hurt for a bit. Yes, the derision about head coach Sunny Golloway’s style of play will still linger.

However, Auburn responded to the ETSU loss and the Friday night loss to Presbyterian in remarkable fashion. For maybe the first time all season, on Saturday and Sunday, things started to click and there was an excitement surrounding Auburn baseball.

Baseball is finicky that way. Honestly, it’s one of the reasons I love the sport so much. That up-and-down nature. That "every day is different" aura. That "game of failure" mentality. In baseball, unlike most other sports, you have little time to linger and fester on losses. There’s another game right around the corner. There’s another chance to prove yourself. There’s always a next pitch. Last week, Auburn fans were beginning to jump ship and second guess the baseball program. This week, they’re throwing out life preservers to the ones who are ready to jump back on board.

On Tuesday, Auburn exploded in the bottom of the first inning. The Tigers jumped out to a 5-0 lead on Alabama A&M using the strategy Coach Golloway has preached from the beginning: get on, get over, get in. The quick 1-0 lead exploded to 5-0 after Auburn was able to capitalize on some Bulldog mistakes and miscues. When the dust settled, Auburn had a comfortable lead and was able to cruise a bit. The only disappointing part of the afternoon was the offense in the later innings. It was stagnant and dormant, and Auburn was held hitless for the final five innings. A good 7-2 win is exciting, but against Alabama A&M it should have been bigger. It could have been bigger. It wasn’t. Still, it was a much-needed win to stop a two-game skid and restore at least a glimmer of confidence in the team.

Freshman pitcher Kevin Davis made his first appearance as a Tiger on Tuesday and his debut was, at best, a C. Davis is coming off a tremendous workload over the summer and spring and, if we’re being honest, is still not at 100 percent. However, he is expected and hoped to be a crucial part of the rotation in the remaining months of the season. Davis was shaky, his location wasn’t where it needed to be and he struggled a bit. Still, he worked three solid innings, and the bullpen was able to keep the door closed the rest of the way. I wouldn’t read too much into Davis’ debut. It’s going to take time to increase his arm strength and get him into top-flight condition. He may start Tuesday against Alabama in Capital City Classic. Although, I would expect him to be on another innings/pitch limit, and the coaches will probably have a quick trigger on him.

On Friday night, Auburn lost to Presbyterian. However, this loss was probably one of the best things that could have happened to the Tigers this year. They weren't just losing, they were losing badly -- down 10-1 -- in the bottom of the ninth. Normally you would have seen an Auburn team just pack it in for those final three outs. Call it a day, go home, get ready for Saturday. This night was different. Auburn was hitting the ball, it just couldn’t score any runs. A Ryan Tella leadoff double sparked the would-be comeback, and the Tigers scored five runs to make the game a more respectable 10-6 loss. Yes, it’s still a loss, but that fight and the resulting mentality served as a bonding moment for the team.

"I think their fight was really good in the dugout," Golloway said. "It's hard for a team down 10-1, embarrassed at home, to show that kind of fight. I'm pleased see that kind of character. They are truly disappointed, and they should be. Again, I've got to keep stressing until you do the fundamentals right, effort can be great. Fundamentally we have to be better."

Auburn also got inspiration from an unlikely source, freshman catcher Blake Logan:

When the team got together following the loss nobody really knew what to say and that’s when Logan stepped up. Even though the 2014 Tigers have plenty of solid leaders from its deep senior class, Logan chose to stand up and in the process may have turned Auburn’s season around.

"I felt like it was the right time for somebody to say something," Logan said. "It was just us players in there and it was really quiet. I was sitting there and thought ‘I probably need to say something.’ I just stood up and told them I had something to say, and they all listened to me.

"It was right after we got beat 10-6 Friday night," he added. "I said that we did a great job of fighting and coming back, and that we had more fire about us that last inning. I said that we needed to come out Saturday with that fire from the beginning. They took to it and they didn't just push me to the side because I am a freshman. They listened and this is a special team in there."

Jay Wade has been around the program for four years and has been through plenty of ups and downs. He said what Logan did Friday night is special and could be just what the doctor ordered for this team.

"I’m getting chills now talking about it," Wade said. "Everybody was like ‘oh wow.’ He’s an excellent kid. I couldn’t make one better myself. He shocked a lot of people with what he said and the way he said it. He’s definitely wise beyond his years. It was one of those things where a guy stands up and says something like that, it just gets you going."

The loss was important for Auburn for other reasons, as well. Dillon Ortman proved human and followed up one his career-best starts with one of his career worst. The cause was simple: Ortman was unable to locate his fastball, and against a free-swinging and fastball seeking team like Presbyterian, he was toast. When a team has tendencies and your normal go-to pitch isn’t working, then it’s not your day. However, his struggles and the early deficit meant Auburn was going to have to rely on some unusual faces from the bullpen. Enter Wade, who pitched fantastic in relief on Friday and Sunday.  He was a surprise out of the bullpen this weekend. He cleaned up a mess on Sunday and held his own, going 4 1/3 innings while allowing only two hits. He capped the Blue Hose attack and allowed Auburn to distance itself. What Ortman and O’Neal struggled with, Wade excelled at. It was nothing against the former two, it was just the tools that Wade had at his disposal. Ortman and O’Neal are fastball-primary pitchers. Presbyterian looks dead-red for fastballs during most at-bats. Wade is the opposite. Jay doesn’t have overpowering velocity, but he does have excellent control and a solid sinker/slider. Presbyterian wasn’t able to counter that.

The loss was also important because it allowed Connor Short to crack the lineup. After Damek Tomcha took a called third strike, he was benched for Blake Austin at third base. When Austin did the same thing later in the game, he was pulled. Auburn only has two catchers. One was leaving. One was catching. The Tigers were really out of options. Personally, I thought Golloway would have gone to Brett Binning in this situation. Instead, he went with Short, who responded by going 2-for-2, scoring a run, driving in a run, and making a case for being an everyday player.

Damek responded to the benching in fantastic fashion. He went 2-for-4 with an RBI on Saturday (while playing first base) and 3-for-4 with the Tigers' first homer of the year and four RBI on Sunday (while serving as DH). That offensive spark from Tomscha was critical for Auburn.

More important than Damek’s offensive response was the shuffling of the lineup on Saturday and Sunday. With the addition of Short, Auburn had to move Damek out of the field. You could either lose his bat or find a different place for him. On Saturday, the choice was easy. Keegan Thompson was pitching, so that freed up either the first base or DH role. Auburn put Tomscha at first, put Daniel Robert at DH and let Thompson, as Freddy Garcia would say, "just make pitch".

That wasn’t the only change made. Damon Haecker and Dan Glevenyak flip-flopped, with Glevenyak going to second base and Haecker playing shortstop. This, to me, was the biggest move of the weekend. Haecker was able to play a more natural position at short and was given more space and range to make plays. Yak, at second base, will reduce his number of errors and will allow his confidence to keep increasing. Glevenyak is solid. His defense last year was a bit of a liability, but to start this year off, he had improved tremendously. However, the yips started to get him in recent games. They bit against ETSU, they bit against Presbyterian and now they’ve been de-teethed. I’m not saying Yak will be perfect at second base. However, I do think and am confident in saying that he will be much improved there and can serve as more of a team leader in the infield.

On Sunday, Short was again in the lineup. This time, however, Thompson was back at first base. Playing DH for the first time, Tomscha had a field day: a three-run home run, two other hits, another RBI. He was the power hitter that Auburn had been looking for. If he thrives in this DH role, then that is a tremendous asset to the Tigers. It may push Robert out of the lineup sometimes, but the trade-off will be better for Auburn in the long run.

One simple game. One blowout loss. That’s what led to all these changes for the Auburn lineup. All positive changes. All changes that the Tigers can use to succeed in the future.

The offense on Sunday was just how a well-oiled Gollloway machine should run. Multiple hits, multiple steals (six, tying a season high), sac bunts and a sac fly. Every Auburn player, except Haecker, got a hit. The Tigers didn’t have a huge inning. Instead, they kept adding on and adding on, scoring in every inning but the last. Even after the pitching staff coughed up the lead, Auburn responded and didn’t panic. It was encouraging to see and gave hope for the future.

This week is a big week for Auburn baseball. The MAX Capital City Classic against Alabama is Tuesday, and the Tigers hope to extend their winning streak in the series. It’s also, obviously, Alabama. Say what you will about Auburn, but wins over Alabama help ease and soothe a ton of hurt. Most Auburn fans don’t really care about Auburn sports outside of football. However, they take notice when you win or lose to Alabama. I’m actually excited to see how Auburn’s offense will perform in Riverwalk Stadium. The outfield is pretty expansive, the dirt is normally pretty fast. It’s not a huge power park, and it could help the Tigers as long as they remember to keep the ball down and keep it in play. I’m not sure who Alabama will put out on the mound, but if last week is any indication, then Auburn should expect to see Nick Eicholtz, a freshman from Odessa, Fla. The key for Auburn on Tuesday will be get hits and get them early. Eicholtz is a high-K guy, so Auburn will need to be patient and work his pitch count up. Alabama, so far, has had a tendency to be light hitting. The Crimson Tide can be -- and have been -- shutout. However, they are built pretty similarly to Auburn. They’re not going to try and overpower you. Instead, they will just try and string multiple hits together. They won’t sacrifice as much as Auburn does, but they will constantly put guys in motion.

After Alabama, it’s the biggest series of the year so far: Mercer. The Bears are good, and Auburn will need to play its best three games so far to take the series. Mercer are extremely talented and one of the best hitting clubs in the country. A win over the orange and black, and Auburn will have a nice RPI boost and confidence going into the SEC opener.

This weekend showed a few things: It showed the Tigers are making progress, but they are still a work in progress. Auburn will probably shuffle the rotation a bit more, define roles a bit more and tweak the lineup a bit more, especially in left field. What Auburn needs to do is keep the offense hot. The pitching, outside of Thompson, did regress slightly over the weekend. However, that’s more due to Presbyterian than Auburn. The Blue Hose would and did hack at anything. It worked Friday, but failed on Saturday and Sunday.

For Auburn, it’s one game at a time and fine tuning until SEC Play. That continues on Tuesday.