On Thursday, March 27, Auburn was 18-8 overall and 4-2 in SEC play, tied for the best record in the conference. The Tigers had won 12 of their previous 14 games and appeared to have righted the ship after some early-season struggles and the departure of three upperclassmen. Set to open a three-game series against Missouri, possibly the league's worst team, Auburn had a chance to impress on national television with the ESPNU cameras in town. Fans were clamoring for a sweep, which would have improved the Tigers to 7-2 against league competition.
And then, the wheels fell off.
Missouri took the first two games to win the series. Auburn followed that up with a listless performance in an 8-1 midweek home loss to Samford. The Tigers traveled to Oxford to face a good Ole Miss team, but a team that had been swept by Alabama the weekend before, and were promptly swept out of town themselves. They blew a 5-2 eighth-inning lead on Friday, losing in bizarre fashion when Austin Anderson hit a walk-off homer in the 13th on a pitch that was supposed to be an intentional ball. During the Saturday doubleheader, they managed one run in 18 innings.
Auburn is now 19-14 overall and 5-7 in conference play, and the team has lost six of seven. The Tigers are tied with Texas A&M for last place in the SEC West, one game ahead of Mizzou for the spot in the conference's cellar. Sunny Golloway's club has looked like to completely different programs, and the current one is pretty awful. What, exactly, are the problems?
The defense is atrocious
This isn't really anything new. Auburn was bad in the field under John Pawlowski, and has been bad in the field for most of the year. But when the Tigers were getting away with it and winning, it was easier to overlook. Now, all those errors stick out like a sore thumb. They actually stepped it up against the Rebels, committing just one error in three games, but prior to that, they had committed 26 in 15 games. That's not good. Four errors resulted in two unearned runs in Game 1 against Missour, a one-run loss for Auburn. Better play in the field would have resulted in a series win.
Some of the issues been caused by Golloway moving players around all over the field at times. Left fielder Jordan Ebert has played some at his old position of second base (though, that's due to injury), third baseman Damek Tomscha has played at first, catcher Blake Austin has played at third and Damon Hacker moved from second to short a few weeks ago (but that was to help take some pressure off Dan Glevenyak, who moved to second). But, too many errors have come from guys playing their regular positions. Haecker had three in the first game against Mizzou -- he's not really out of position since he's a natural middle infielder. Tomscha had three against Samford, and Haecker added another.
Auburn is the only SEC team with two players -- Haecker (9), Glevenyak (8) -- ranking in the conference's top 10 for most errors committed. There have been plenty of both the fielding and throwing variety. Right now, it's hard to imagine defensive fundamentals seeing a major improvement during this season.
Glevenyak's injury is hurting the lineup
Yak was out with some sort of mysterious back/hip issue, and he hasn't really bounced back yet. That's a problem. While he isn't close to being Auburn's best hitter, and he certainly does not provide a ton of power, he's been a key to offensive success. Before going down with the injury, Glevenyak was batting just .243 with six extra-base hits and seven RBI, but he was pretty consistent when asked to sacrifice, which isn't the case for every Auburn player, and he was the Tigers' best base stealer, swiping 11 bags on 12 attempts. That combination of success moving runners over and being able to take extra bases is a huge asset in Golloway's offensive philosophy, and it's something Auburn is seriously missing during this skid.
Tomscha has cooled off
At one point earlier this year, Tomscha was hitting well over .400, and he broke out with five home runs in a seven-game stretch. He's without a doubt Auburn's biggest power threat, leading the Tigers in slugging (.588), homers (five), doubles (seven) and second in RBI (21). But his struggles have been consistent with his teammates in the last seven games. He's batting .357 (10-for-28), but has just one double, two RBI and three runs during that stretch. In three games against Ole Miss, he was just 3-for-13 with one run scored. For Auburn to get back on track, Tomscha has to do the same.
Pitching -- outside of Thompson an Ortman -- is thin
Dillon Ortman and Keegan Thompson, Auburn's normal Friday and Saturday starters, have been mostly excellent this year. Yes, Thompson was roughed up against Ole Miss in his worst outing of the season, and neither has picked up a win since the trip to Tennessee. But the Tigers' struggles in their recent starts can hardly be pinned on Ortman and Thompson. However, the rest of the staff isn't providing much help.
In the last seven games, numbers for Auburn starters not named Keegan Thompson or Dillon Ortman (three starts): 1-2, 15 1/3 IP, 17 H, 10 R, 6 ER, 6 BB, 9 K, 3.52 ERA. That ERA might not seem all that bad, but in this dead-ball era of college baseball, it's far from great -- Missouri currently ranks 12th in the league in team ERA at 3.45.
Despite giving up the three-run walk-off homer Friday against Ole Miss, Jay Wade has been solid in relief -- those were the only runs he allowed in five innings against the Rebs. But the rest of the bullpen hasn't been as good. The combined relief numbers over Auburn's last seven games, minus Wade: 16 IP, 11 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 9 BB, 9 K, 3.94 ERA. Beyond Thompson and Ortman, the Tigers just don't have a lot of pitching depth. It wasn't as big of a problem when the offense was clicking, but with the struggles at the plate, it makes a big difference.
Auburn isn't executing in the small-ball game
This might be the most frustrating problem the Tigers are facing. When Golloway's brand of small ball is working, it keeps pressure on opposing pitchers and fielders and is actually pretty fun to watch. But when it isn't, Auburn is giving away outs. Way too often, hitters have failed to get bunts down that can advance runners, and way too often runners have been thrown out on the base paths. The difference between proper and improper execution on offense has been the deciding factor on how good this team can be. When the Tigers were 6-6, they weren't doing a good job at the plate or on the bases. During the 12-2 stretch, execution was obviously much better. Now, it's fallen off again. Just look at the runs per game at the different points in the season. First 12: 4.1; next 14: 6.1; last seven: 2.7.
It's not too late for Auburn. Because the entire SEC has been beating up on itself, the Tigers aren't too far behind the competition. They sit three games back of first-place Alabama with a trip to Tuscaloosa this weekend. But, the schedule isn't getting any easier. After the three-game set against the Crimson Tide, Auburn finishes league play with series vs. South Carolina, at Arkansas, vs. Mississippi State, at Kentucky and vs. LSU. If the Tigers can return to form -- especially on offense -- they can make a run at the postseason. But if not, a finish near the bottom of the standings is almost certain.