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A bumpy ride to Hoover

How did an experienced and talented Auburn baseball team end up fighting for its postseason life? It’s a complicated question. Things happened to John Pawlowski’s third Auburn team over which nobody had any control. And things have happened that are mystifying.

Justin Bryant has been missed in the field, at the plate, on the mound/Todd Van Emst photo

INJURIES

Justin Bryant was going to be a starting outfielder and the closer on the mound. He suffered an arm injury early in the season, underwent surgery and was lost for the season.

Pitcher Cory Luckie also has had arm problems and has pitched just once the last four weeks.

Freshman Bobby Andrews, with blazing speed, emerged as an offensive catalyst, only to suffer a wrist that has kept him out most of the past month.

Jon Luke Jacobs, now part of the starting rotation, missed two starts because of a physical issue.

Will Irvin, a midweek starter and weekend reliever, decided to leave the team.

Designated hitter Dan Gamache suffered a hamstring injury that severely limited him through the final three weekends of the regular season and now may be out for the rest of the season with a hand injury.

CLUTCH HITTING

The Tigers, even with their best hitters at bat, have had major problems getting runners home when they are scoring position. Far too many times, runners have been on third base with less than two out and been stranded there. That problem cost the Tigers Sunday’s game at Tennessee and a share of the West Division championship.

RELIEF PITCHING

Dillon Ortman, Ethan Wallen, Zach Blatt and Bradley Hendrix have all had some good outings, but consistency has been an issue. Never was it more obvious than when the Tigers, going for a sweep of Georgia, gave up an 11-5 lead in the ninth inning and lost 14-11.

MIDWEEK SWOONS

Perhaps the most puzzling thing about this team has been its woeful performances in midweek games against instate teams. The Tigers lost twice to Samford, twice to South Alabama, once to Troy and once to Jacksonville State. Lack of pitching depth has been a large part of the problem, but that doesn’t explain scoring three runs in two games against South Alabama or getting shut out 8-0 by Samford.

WHAT NOW?

The Tigers go into next week’s Southeastern Conference Tournament at 29-27 overall. They have to win at least one to finish above .500 and qualify for a regional. Will that be enough? It might be, but there are no guarantees.

The Tigers’ RPI has fallen to No. 36, one spot below Alabama and eighth best in the SEC. Georgia is No. 23 but needs a miracle to finish above .500 and qualify for a regional. LSU is No. 26 but didn’t qualify for the SEC Tournament.

Add it all up, and Auburn probably in the field with one win. But there are no guarantees. Even getting one won’t be easy in the bracket with South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Georgia. The Tigers will play No. 1 seed South Carolina on Wednesday at Hoover’s Regions Park.

After Pawlowski shuffled through starters like a deck of cards for much of the season, the starting lineup in the field and the rotation on the mound finally seem set. Pitchers Jon Luke Jacobs, Derek Varnadore and Slade Smith have been very good for the past three series.

But there is no more margin for error for a team that has endured one bumpy ride to Hoover.

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