AUBURN – For Auburn’s baseball team, the next three days could tell the story of the 2013 season. No. 11 Arkansas visits Plainsman Park for the final series of the regular season starting Thursday, and in the words of fifth-year coach John Pawlowski, “It comes down to winning. We need to win some games.”
Senior first baseman Garrett Cooper will play his final series at Plainsman Park
The Tigers (31-21 overall and 11-16 in the Southeastern Conference), are fighting to get into an NCAA regional for the first time since 2010. If they beat Arkansas (34-17 and 17-9) twice, they’ll put themselves in position to play their way in with a strong performance in next week’s SEC Tournament. If they sweep, they’ll probably punch their ticket. If they win one or are swept, they’ll probably be finished after the SEC Tournament.
“Obviously, it’s an important weekend for a number of different reasons as we get down the home stretch in preparation for the SEC Tournament,” Pawlowski said. “I’m certainly proud of our club for making the SEC Tournament for the fourth year in a row. It’s a great accomplishment, but more goals and more aspirations lie ahead for this club. We know we are going to have to play well this weekend to move forward.”
Tonight’s game gets under way at 6 p.m. Friday’s game also starts at 6 p.m. Saturday’s game starts at 1 p.m. The SEC Tournament begins Tuesday at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium. Auburn could be seeded as high as No. 6 or as low as No. 11 in the 12-team field.
“At the beginning of the year we lay out our goals,” Pawlowski said. “Our goals are to go to the SEC Tournament, to go to the NCAA Tournament and to fight for a national championship. Those are three simple goals. The players are smart enough and they understand what is at stake.”
Senior first baseman Garrett Cooper, who leads the team in hitting at .360 and shares the lead in homer runs with seven, has had a banner season. But he says it won’t be complete if the Tigers miss out on postseason play.
“I couldn’t ask for a better season,” Cooper said. “I came back and put on weight and it’s been a great season. But it’s not much if we don’t make it to the postseason. All you can ask for is a chance, and we have our chance.”
Auburn, winner of three straight series over Arkansas, will start left-hander Conner Kendrick (4-3, 2.25 ERA) in the opener on Thursday and left-hander Michael O’Neal (8-3, 2.85) on Friday. Saturday’s starter is to be determined.
Arkansas, which has the nation’s lowest ERA at a gaudy 1.87, will start right-hander Barrett Astin (4-3, 2.21) on Thursday, right-hander Ryne Stanek (7-2, 1.70) on Friday and left-hander Randall Fant (5-1, 2.00) on Saturday.
After winning six of seven games and winning two of three at Florida last weekend, a parade of soft-tossing Jacksonville State pitchers shut down Auburn offense Tuesday and the Gamecocks won 6-1.
Cooper said that won’t affect the Tigers’ confidence against Arkansas.
“We don’t dwell too much on it,” Cooper said. “Give the pitcher credit for beating us with an 80 mile-per-hour fastball. We’ll see 90-95 again this weekend.”