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Auburn vs. South Carolina baseball wrap-up: Close calls and closing windows

Auburn dropped another series in heartbreaking and close fashion. However, there's still hope and optimism for the season.

It's cliche at this point, but the window is slowly closing for the 2014 Auburn baseball team. After dropping two of three to South Carolina, the Tigers pushed the SEC series losing streak to four, and the theme of the weekend was missed chances and lost opportunities.

It started with the opponent. The Gamecocks came in highly ranked, but scuffling, losing three of their last four SEC series, decimated by injuries, and limping into Plainsman Park with a four-game losing streak. Carolina was ripe for the taking.

Here was an Auburn team that was struggling in its own right -- a team that had just lost to Samford, had its head coach make bizarre comments the day before, and had no identity at the plate anymore. It was also a team that looked backed into a corner and looked like head coach Sunny Golloway was prepared to win at at any cost: his midweek comments (and Alabama Sunday postgame comments) when he discussed the surprising difficulty it was to rebuild the team, mentioned a full on youth movement, and bandied about the idea of converting Auburn's fabulous freshman starter Keegan Thompson into Auburn's closer.

Before getting into the weekend, let's look closer at the (supposed) need for Thompson at closer. If there is one issue for Auburn this year, one ever-present issue, it's been the lack of consistent and quality relief work from the Auburn bullpen. Auburn has lacked a steady stream of guys who they can turn to and won't put fans' stomachs in knots. It's a complicated issue, but in my opinion, it's an issue rooted in inconsistency from use and not from inconsistency in practice. Auburn has bullpen depth. The Tigers have (or should have) a set rotation of Dillon Ortman, Thompson, and Michael O'Neal. They had a closer (Terrance Dedrick) and two set-up men (Jay Wade and Trey Cochran-Gill). They have midweek guys in Justin Camp and Kevin Daivs. They have long relief (Daniel Koger, Rocky McCord, Cole Lipscomb, Trey Wingenter) and short relief (Robby Clements, Jacob Milliman, Davis, Reid Carter). Everyone seemed to have easily defined roles.

Instead, Auburn has used Cochran-Gill, Wade, and Dedrick almost exclusively; bounced O'Neal/Camp/Wingenter into Sunday starter roles; and barely used McCord, Lipscomb, Clements, and Koger. Those last four guys have a combined 18 appearances, 15 2/3 innings pitched, and 4.40 ERA (with Koger pushing those numbers upward with 8 app/10 innings/3.60 ERA). Wade by himself has 27 appearances, 27 2/3 innings, and 3.58 ERA. Part of that is injuries and overuse before the season -- at least in Davis's case -- and some ineffectiveness/struggles (Carter has struggled a bit). But overall? Auburn uses four guys (Wade, Camp, Dedrick, Cochran-Gill) and forgets the rest. The Tigers have bullpen depth, they just don't use them consistently.

So that brings up why Thompson was brought in to close to begin with. With the overuse of the bullpen and the inability to hold on to a lead, the thinking is: groom Thompson to close, and you can get more use out of him and win mores games. It works in theory. It sort of worked in practice, but in all honesty, you're just plugging a hole in a dyke at that point. You've fixed one problem (blown saves) but created another (a hole in your rotation). The experiment was short lived. Thompson returned to a starter role against Carolina. Still, the overall issue in the bullpen remained. With no shut-down guy to step up as closer, Auburn was and is forced to use matchups. However, with the lack of left-handed pitching on the staff, the matchups are really just style matchups and not lefty/righty matchups.

Granted, I'm not a coach and I'm sure there are other factors that lead to using the same handful of guys over and over. Still, for Auburn to win consistently down the stretch, it will need more than four guys in relief. At this point, there is no need to keep the Sunday starter as TBA. It's O'Neal. It has to be. He's one of your few left-handers, he can battle, and he can keep you in a position to win. The record looks ugly at 2-4, but part of that is due to the lack of run support he got early on as a starter. O'Neal showed it Sunday when Trey Wingenter got the start and struggled before he went in and calmed things down. You have to trust your senior in that situation.

On a minor note, it brings up an issue for Auburn in 2015. Once O'Neal leaves, Auburn will only have one lefty on staff (Koger) and one -- possibly -- coming (signee Colton Campbell from Orangewood Christian in Deltona, Fla.). Auburn needs more southpaws, and honestly, if the Tigers had a LOOGY, then it would be the difference in two or three more wins.

The Carolina weekend showed what Auburn fans have seen for the majority of the season (the Tigers can get good starting pitching), what they've seen lately (a lack of offense/clutch hitting), and what they haven't seen in a while (error-free baseball, both in the field and on the base paths). The lack of clutch hitting was ultimately what did Auburn in. The Tigers had prime chances to take the lead late in Game 2:

But the real trouble started in the bottom of the eighth when Auburn loaded the bases with nobody out. After getting ahead 3-0, Ryan Tella struck out swinging on a high fastball for the first out. Dan Glevenyak struck out swinging on another full count for the second out. Pinch-hitter Daniel Robert lined out to second and the Tigers did not score.

and Game 3:

After South Carolina reclaimed the lead, Daniel Robert singled off South Carolina closer Joel Seddon and was replaced by pinch hitter J.J. Shaffer. Keegan Thompson singled. The runners moved up to second and third on a wild pitch.

But Glevenyak struck out swinging. Gillikin pinch hit for Anfernee Grier and also struck out swinging.

Maybe Auburn was a little gun shy from the previous series, and the previous mistakes and thought caused Golloway to move away from his game plan. Normally in a situation like the one presented in Game 2, Auburn would squeeze. Golloway even said so himself:

"We should have squeezed in the eighth," Golloway said. Should have a couple of times. We had a 3-2 count and swing at ball four almost over our head. The other one was probably a ball, too. Either way, we had an opportunity to put the ball in play on the first two strikes and didn't do it. Then we go to a freshman and he scorches one. If either of the first two had done that, we'd have been in good shape."

So how do you fix the offense? Auburn wasn't as risky on the base paths and went away from the squeeze last weekend, two issues that fans said were the root of the lack of offense. It still didn't translate to runs. Auburn didn't hunt fastballs last weekend, another issue Golloway said was plaguing the team. That didn't immediately translate to hits. Auburn is still taking pitches and being patient. Maybe there is a need for more aggressiveness now. The only issue with that is Auburn might run in to quick innings, and for Auburn this year, aggressiveness means quick innings, quick outs, lazy flies, and opposing starting pitching going deep because they've only thrown 10-15 pitches an inning.

Golloway showed this past weekend that the needless outs on the basepaths, the errors in the field, and a few other factors could be corrected. The only issue now is getting the clutch hit. Auburn is close, but so far is coming up empty. When that turns around, Auburn can right the ship.

Is the season lost? No. Not yet. Yes, the window is closing, and yes, the margin of error is growing slimmer. I'll hold steadfast and true (but won't bet money because I'm broke) that if Auburn does the following four things, the Tigers will make the NCAA Tournament, things that aren't out of the realm of possibility (in order of importance):

  1. Win each of the remaining midweek games
  2. Win at least one of the remaining SEC series
  3. Avoid getting swept in the other SEC series.
  4. Make the SEC Tournament.

You'll notice that making the SEC Tournament is at the bottom of the list. That's important, but at this point, it's not as important as the other three. Honestly, if Auburn does the first three things, then the Tigers will make the SEC Tournament. The midweek games are important because Auburn can ill-afford another RPI killer. All that remains in the non-conference schedule are South Alabama (RPI No. 124), Bethune-Cookman (241), and UAB (82). A loss to any of those three could put a major dent in the RPI. On the flip side, the SEC slate features Arkansas (51), Kentucky (11), Mississippi State (40), and LSU (13). Wins there, even one and especially two, will send the RPI skyward. The Tigers need wins. They need them badly.

This may sound dire, but the next four games will determine Auburn's season. The Tigers have South Alabama Tuesday night to right the ship, and then hit the road to take on a surging Arkansas team that is in the same position as Auburn. Both the Tigers and Hogs are on the NCAA regional bubble. Only one of them is getting in a this point. Auburn can rabbit-foot itself by hoping Mizzou, Tennessee, Georgia, and Texas A&M all start sliding to give a little buffer for SEC Tournament hopes, but the Tigers really need to take care of their own house and return to form.

It all starts Tuesday night, and the Tigers need to beat a South Alabama team that always plays Auburn tough, holding an all time 47-23 record over the Orange and Blue. It's gutcheck time. Let's see how Auburn responds. War Eagle.