A death in the family has thrown my schedule out of whack, so we'll have to do without the daily highlights this week. Let's get right to the mailbag:
With a big series win over LSU, where do you see Auburn going the second half of the SEC season? They have three tough road series at Vanderbilt, at Arkansas, and at Ole Miss, and three fairly easy home series against Tennessee, Mississippi State, and Kentucky. Do you see them grabbing a road series?
The Tigers made a huge statement with their first home series win against Louisiana State since 1998. All of a sudden, Auburn is 7-5 in the Southeastern Conference, ranked No. 23 in the nation and in good position to end a six-year SEC tournament drought and a five-year regionals drought. Don't underestimate the motivational power of those droughts.
"People talk about it all the time—we haven't been to the SEC tournament," Auburn coach John Pawlowski said. "That's something they carry with them all the time, and they're working extremely hard to get us there. When you look at our team, we're the underdogs. We kind of like that role, and these guys are playing with a big chip on their shoulder. They haven't tasted success the way they'd hoped and expected."
Auburn's current class of juniors arrived with plenty of fanfare in 2007, ranking as the nation's No. 5 recruiting class. The centerpieces of that class—sluggers Kevin Patterson, Hunter Morris and Brian Fletcher—flashed their potential during their first two years at Auburn, but they have only now begun to truly harness their abilities. Morris (.401/.469/.704 with nine homers and 39 RBIs) was a first-team preseason All-American who also earned midseason All-America honors. Fletcher (.381/.455/.690 with 10 homers and 39 RBIs) was limited to DH duties for much of the first half by a pulled quadricep, but he has hit all season long. Patterson (.388/.488/1.000 with eight homers) has started just 13 games because Fletcher was occupying his DH spot, but he has come on strong of late.
Give Auburn credit for weathering a torrent of injuries in the first half. In addition to Fletcher's injury, Trent Mummey missed the first seven weeks of the season with a severely sprained ankle before returning last week and hitting three home runs. He DHed upon his return but is moving better now and will return to center field full-time this week. Shortstop Casey McElroy missed some time early with a broken finger; outfielder Justin Fradejas missed time with a hamate bone injury; and super-utilityman Justin Bryant went down last week with a broken hand after getting hit by a pitch.
The Tigers have slid players all around the diamond to plug the leaks, but they have stayed afloat.
"They've handled the adversity well," Pawlowski said. "We don't talk about it that much, we just know if something happens, someone else has got to toe the line. We've made a lot of adjustments. I tell our guys, 'Just bring your glove and just go out and play.' "
Auburn's potent offense gives it a chance in any SEC series, but the Tigers will need to pitch better to win some of those tough road series Adam mentioned in his question. Lefthander Cole Nelson has top-of-the-rotation stuff and has been good at times, going 4-2, 4.61, but LSU jumped him in the first inning last week, and he was removed from the game without recording an out. The Tigers are still trying to find the right combination in the rotation between Nelson, lefties Grant Dayton (4-1, 5.18) and Cory Luckie (2-2, 9.13), and righties Jon Luke Jacobs (0-2, 5.86) and Dexter Price (3-0, 3.57).
In the meantime, the bullpen has picked up the slack, with lefty Sean Ray (2-1, 2.25) and righty Michael Hurst (2-0, 3.15) building a bridge to closer Austin Hubbard (3-1, 2.86 with three saves), whose devastating breaking ball makes him one of the league's most dominating closers.
"One key so far has been guys out of the 'pen," Pawloski said. "We don't have any superstars on the mound, but we have a lot of guys who are just tough, hard-nosed kids who have a good idea how to pitch."
Pawlowski knows there is a long road yet to travel—he points out that Auburn has played 12 conference games and has 18 left to play. But his mature, gritty team has already proven it can handle some adversity, and this seems like the year the Tigers find their way back into the postseason.
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