Since opening its Southeastern Conference season with seven consecutive losses, Auburn’s baseball team has gone into four consecutive series finales with a chance to either win or sweep the series. And it is 0-for-4.
Daniel Koger will return to the starting rotation Sunday.
Not only have the Tigers not won a series finale, they have barely managed a whimper on offense. They were shut out by Alabama, scored a single run against Texas A&M, another single run against Vanderbilt and were shut out by Mississippi State.
Getting big hits at big times, fifth-year head coach John Pawlowski says, has been a problem all season. Seventeen times in 18 SEC games the Tigers have had the bases loaded. And they have not managed a single hit. Their percentage of getting runners home from third with less than two out is 48.3. That’s 13th in the 14-team SEC.
“We haven’t had a hit yet with the bases loaded,” Pawlowski said. “That’s almost impossible to do. You think if we have one hit here or there, that’s one or two runs and that could help us win some games.
“There’s that, and we have to do a much better job of getting runners in from third with less than two out. The base hit, I keep saying that will happen. We just have to be more efficient offensively.”
Pawlowski recognizes time is running short. The Tigers are 24-16 overall and 6-12 in the SEC as they travel to Missouri (13-23, 5-13) for a weekend series that starts tonight at 6. The two teams meet Saturday at 2 and Sunday at 1.
Auburn’s most immediate goal is getting into the 12-team SEC Tournament. But a far more important goal is getting into a regional for the first time since 2010. Winning on the road, even against bottom-feeding Missouri would help.
“When you start off the way we started, it put us on our heels right out of the gate,” Pawlowski said. “Ever since, we’ve been trying to claw our way out of it. It is important for a lot of reasons. It’s another opportunity for us. You have 12 opportunities left in conference. You have to make the most of those. It is an important series for all the right reasons.”
Auburn will start left-hander Conner Kendrick (2-2, 2.09 ERA) against left-hander Rob Zastryzny (2-7, 4.22) tonight. Saturday, the Tigers will turn to ace left-hander Michael O’Neal (8-2, 2.13) against right-hander Brett Graves (0-5, 4.86).
Sunday will mark the return of sophomore left-hander Daniel Koger (0-2, 4.02) to the rotation after suffering from tendonitis in his pitching arm. It will be his first start since a 2-0 loss to Alabama on April 7. He pitched 1 2/3 innings Sunday in a 6-0 loss at Mississippi State, giving up a run and a hit.
“At Mississippi State, his fastball was as good as it has been all year,” Pawlowski said. “I think the rest that he had, the work that he put into it, he just had a presence about himself. If we can get that kind of stuff out of him, which he is certainly capable of, I think he’s really going to help us at a time we need somebody in that Sunday role to step up for us.”
Auburn is 11th in the overall standings going into the weekend, one game behind Texas A&M and one game ahead of Tennessee and Missouri.