The slide continues for Auburn baseball, and the Tigers sit at a crossroads for the season. After the first two weeks of conference action, the Tigers looked like the surprise in the SEC: winners of back-to-back series, a national ranking, and riding a wave of emotion and optimism. Then came the series loss to Mizzou; then came the sweep at Ole Miss (punctuated by the walk-off home run/intentional walk); and finally, this weekend: a series loss to Alabama capped by a walk-off series win for the Tide on Sunday.
Where there was optimism, now lies doubt and worry. The Tigers sit last in the SEC West at 6-9 in conference. The halfway point of league play is here and Auburn faces a murderer’s row of opponents down the stretch and a tough mountain to climb. The remaining opponents -- South Carolina, Arkansas, Mississippi State, Kentucky, LSU -- are all ranked, are all tough (in different ways), and if Auburn wants to make an NCAA regional, it will take the team that was around in March and not the team that has floundered in April.
On Friday in Tuscaloosa, Auburn got off to a quick start, scoring two runs in the top of the second. Those would be the only two runs for the Tigers, the only two runs they would need. The story Friday was Keegan Thompson coming on in relief of Dillon Ortman. Head coach Sunny Golloway said he had been thinking of the move for a while and Thompson shined in his two innings of work. After a leadoff double by Alabama’s Georgie Salem, Dillon Ortman’s masterful performance was over. Ortman worked seven-plus innings, allowing just five hits, one run, and striking out two. There was a consistency to Ortman that Auburn has rarely seen on Friday nights. The senior played just like just, a senior. Keegan got the call to shut down the Tide the rest of the way: two innings, one hit, five strikeouts and his first save. Just like that, Auburn had a surprising lead in the series and had stopped a three-game skid.
The real story however, was the lack of offense once again by Auburn. The Tigers left the bases loaded three times on Friday, in the second, fourth, and ninth innings. Each one more frustrating that the last. In the second, at least Auburn scored two runs (on a Connor Short sac fly and a Jordan Ebert infield single). Unfortunately, in all three cases, the goat was Anfernee Grier. Grier came up with bases-loaded/two-outs all three times. His results: ground out (0-0 count), strikeout (0-2 count), fly out to left (0-0 count). That’s three outs, no runs, and on two of those outs, Grier swung at the first pitch.
Grier was slotted in the 2-hole, probably in an effort to advance Jordan Ebert (1-hole) and protect Ryan Tella, who was batting third. It was not the best night at the plate for the freshman: 0 for 5 with three Ks and nine men left on base.
Still, that was overlooked with the win and the performance by Thompson. Auburn had the advantage and had to take the momentum. There were more questions for the rest of the series. Since Keegan pitched Friday, who would start Saturday? Would we see more of Keegan in relief? Would he start and flip-flop to Sunday?
The Saturday game was just a poor showing by Auburn' offense. The Tigers had no answer for Justin Kamplain and wasted the few threats that they had. Auburn went down in order in five of the nine innings, and when the Tigers did get base runners on, they couldn’t advance them. Auburn finished with three hits, seven left on base and a series that was even.
The pitching was adequate on Saturday. Michael O’Neal, being pushed up a day, threw three innings, giving up five hits and one earned run. That one earned run was a solo homer by Kyle Overstreet in the fourth. That, followed by a four-pitch walk to the next batter, signaled the end for O’Neal, and Trey Cochran-Gill was tasked with keeping the Tide lead manageable. Cochran-Gill went 3 2/3 innings and gave up three runs (two earned), while striking out two.
That set up a crucial Sunday rubber game, and Auburn turned to closter Terrance Dedrick to start. Dedrick was, to put it kindly, erratic: two innings of work, five hits, three runs, two walks, one strikeout. Enter Trey Wingenter, who settled in nicely: four innings of shutout baseball, four hits, one walk, four Ks. Wingenter showed promise and poise on the mound and allowed Auburn to get back in the game and hold things until Keegan Thompson took over in the seventh.
The pitching was there, but once again, the hitting was not. In this case, there were even more chances: 12 hits, but only three runs. The most heartbreaking inning was the third.
A J.J. Shaffer single, a Damon Haecker single, and there were two on for Damek Tomscha. Tomscha singled but Shaffer was waved home and thrown out at the plate. Double steal, walk (Daniel Robert), strikeout (Ebert) and the bases were loaded again. Two outs. Still, no runs. Thankfully, Alabama buckled a bit. Blake Logan drew a bases-loaded walk. Then back-to-back singles by Short and Brett Binning made it a 3-3 game. However, Auburn got greedy and Blake Logan was thrown out at home on Binning's base hit. That’s the first and last out of the inning being made at home plate. Auburn could have cracked the game wide-open, but instead, it was just tied.
Both teams held serve until the bottom of the ninth. A misplayed outfield single turned into a double, and a two-out, first-pitch RBI single finished the game and the series. Alabama walked off with both, and Auburn was left wondering about missed chances and opportunities.
The Youth Movement
A couple of things stood out during this series, and one of them was pretty evident in Golloway’s pull quote in the postgame from Sunday (emphasis mine):
"Tough, emotional loss, no doubt about it," Auburn head coach Sunny Golloway said. "But our guys played really hard. We started seven freshmen today, and our freshmen played really well and swung the bat really well. The series could have gone either way with a base hit here or there, we all saw that. They have a veteran club, we have a young club, and we’re going to continue to develop our freshmen and build our club."
In the sixth inning, Auburn’s lineup looked like this: Ebert in LF, Shaffer in CF, Grier in RF, Binning at 2B, Short at 3B, Haecker at SS, Robert at DH, Logan at C and Wingenter pitching. That would be 9 of the 10 positions being filled by either a freshman of a sophomore.
That’s definitely a youth movement. Even when Thompson pitched, and Logan was swapped with Blake Austin, the field definitely wasn’t what you would call veteran.
Not that Auburn has a lot of veterans to lean on in the field. Tomscha, Tella, Dan Glevenyak and Austin are the bell-cows, and they are all seniors. Yak is still hurt, Tella and Tomscha have been hot and cold, and Austin is, well, Blake Austin: a reliable veteran. Auburn has zero junior position players and outside of pitcher Dylan Smith and outfielder Jackson Burgreen. The only sophomore position guys who have played consistently are outfielders Sam Gillikin and Ebert. Auburn is a young team in the field. The Tigers are going to be a young team for the next two years. There is not much Auburn can do except grow and learn.
This is also kind of shrewd on Golloway’s part. You play freshman and they screw up? You can say, "Oh. We’re learning. We’re going to take our lumps and grow and build for the future." The onus is on the youth and not on questionable coaching.
So, that’s what Auburn is: young team that is going to have to turn the season around and fight to make the NCAA Tournament against veteran-heavy clubs like LSU, Mississippi State and Carolina.
It could work. Those guys could provide a spark that was missing. It’s all very much in flux. If you’re trying to lay a foundation, you need the first pieces to anchor in. Binning, Short, Shaffer, Grier, Haecker, Robert, Thompson and Logan? That’s your foundation. You will have three years with these guys, and if everything goes as planned, then in 2016 you’ll have an entire junior outfield and infield. Those eight guys will either make or break Sunny Golloway’s tenure here at Auburn. You’ve got your core along with Wingenter, Ebert, Gillikin, Kevin Davis, Cole Lipscomb and Justin Camp. Those guys will determine if Golloway lives past the five-year plan or if he goes the way of John Pawlowski and Tom Slater.
But is Golloway sacrificing 2014 to make hay for the future? Not really. Here’s why.
The SEC Mess and NCAA Chances
The Southeastern Conference is cannibalizing itself in way that I’ve not seen in a long time. Auburn may be sitting at 6-9 in the conference but, the Tigers find themselves only four games out of first and only three games out of second. Of the 14 SEC teams, nine have losing or .500 records in conference. South Carolina is only one game over .500. That’s 10 teams out of 14 that are treading water. If the season ended today, Auburn would make the SEC Tournament, but just barely.
Auburn also still (despite the current skid) has a chance at the NCAA Tournament. However, the Tigers are no longer in the driver’s seat and need some help.
How can they make a regional? Well, first they need to make it to Hoover. Most pundits have predicted the SEC to get 10 teams into regionals this season. I’m not that generous. I think the SEC will get its normal eight teams and maybe sneak one more into the field. That’s nine. Twelve teams will make it Hoover, so three of them will be left out of the postseason.
Auburn needs to keep an eye on six teams: Kentucky, Texas A&M, Missouri, Tennessee, Georgia and Arkansas. The Tigers need to finish better than those six teams in the league. Do that, and I’m confident in the NCAA chances. That would put Auburn at eighth in the league and would be a lock to make the field of 64. Auburn already has series wins over two of those teams and will face the other two later in the season. What Auburn really needs to watch out for is Missouri. Auburn really needs the Columbia Tigers to drop back down to earth so that it doesn’t have to worry about a potential tiebreak scenario.
The other thing Auburn needs to do? Win the midweek games. To add to the postseason confidence, the Tigers need at least 30 wins overall. More than 30 is icing on the cake.
Auburn is currently sitting on 21 wins. The Tigers have 19 games left. A winning record is required to make the postseason (as Auburn knows all too well from years past). Fifty-six games total, divided in half, means 28-28 is a .500 record. Auburn has only four midweek games left: 21+4 and you’re at 25. Auburn’s RPI (47) is at such a level right now that any loss in the midweek at this point could do irreparable damage. If they sweep the midweeks, then the Tigers would need at least five wins in the final 15 SEC Games (five series) to get to 30 wins overall. Without getting swept, hat's at least one win in each series. However, that would put Auburn at an ugly 11-19 in the league. That wouldn’t be good enough. So, we bump it up to 32 wins. That’s taking (at least) two series, finishing with 32 wins overall, 13-17 in the league. That’s a bit more respectable. With 33 wins and 14-16 in SEC play? That’s better. The RPI will take care of itself in the league.
How does Auburn make the NCAA Tournament? It’s (kind of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ) simple:
- Make the SEC Tournament
- Finish ninth or better in the league
- Win at least 30 games overall.
- Find offense.
Optimizing the Lineup
How do you find offense? Well, for starters you don’t run yourself out of innings and get thrown out at home. Probably by bunting less and stealing less. However, that’s probably not going to happen in Auburn’s case. The Tigers are building for the future, and they are building toward Golloway’s style. That requires these gut-wrenching base-running mistakes and sometimes unnecessary risks.
Auburn can, however, optimize the lineup sabermetrically. Check out this article from Beyond the Box Score. The standard lineup looks like this:
Speedy guy who can hopefully get on base
One of the three best hitters (high OBP)
Good bat handler
One of the three best hitters
5th best hitter
Best power hitter
One of the three best hittesr (high SLG)
Second best (contact) hitter
4th best hitter
Best remaining power hitter
6th best hitter
7th best hitter
7th best hitter
8th best hitter
8th best hitter (or pitcher if NL)
9th best hitter
9th best hitter (ith best hitter if NL)
The standard lineup for Auburn would probably look like this:
- Grier (RF)
- Tella (CF)
- Ebert (LF/2B)
- Tomscha (1B/3B/DH)
- Austin (C/3B)
- Robert (DH/1B)
- Haecker (SS)
- Short (3B)
- Glevenyak (2B)
Looks pretty similar to a normal Auburn lineup.
The optimized lineup would be:
- Haecker (SS)
- Ebert (LF)
- Logan (Catcher)
- Tomscha (1B)
- Tella (CF)
- Austin (3B)
- Binning (2B)
- Grier (RF)
- Robert (DH)
That would change depending on who’s on a hot streak, but it would put Binning in the lineup more and stack the middle of the order with high-RBI guys. Logan in the 3-hole seems high, but he has shown a knack for hitting and that he’s not afraid to bunt. That makes it easier to call for a bunt if Haecker and Ebert get on instead of having him hit into a double play. It would also give Tella, Tomscha, and Austin a better chance (with their high slugging percentages) to bring them in. Sliding Binning that low, but putting him on the field, gives you a high-contact guy and more RBI chances. Grier and Robert would do the least amount of damage in if they strikeout, ground out, fly out at 8 and 9. If they get hits? Then Auburn has the top of the order and two consistent contact guys to hit.
Even if Golloway doesn't optimize the lineup, at the very least there should be a thought of moving a high-RBI potential guy toward the top three instead of a player like Grier or Shaffer, who are good at getting on base, not as good at bringing guys home.
The season isn't over. Is it tougher? Yes, of course. If Auburn is going to move toward a full youth movement, then go ahead and do it now. The task is tough. The Tigers need to take at least one series from South Carolina, LSU, Arkansas, Kentucky or Mississippi State. They have to avoid being swept. They really can’t lose a midweek game from here on out. Do that, make an NCAA regional, and finish off Year 1 under Golloway, and they've set themselves up for a solid 2015 and a monster 2016 campaign. It all starts Tuesday in Birmingham against Samford.