Friday night, after Ole Miss had beaten Auburn 6-1, Gabe Gross was more than disappointed. He was on the verge of being discouraged.
Auburn hitting coach Gabe Gross
Gross, Auburn’s hitting coach, had watched his team score one run or less for the fifth time in six games. None of the previous games, he said, had shown as much lack of focus as the series opener against Ole Miss.
Gross brought major league credentials to John Pawlowski’s staff. And he brought the same offensive philosophy that helped him become a consensus All-American and that won games and championships for Hal Baird for 16 Auburn seasons. It’s about keeping the pressure on, about forcing pitchers to throw more than they want to throw. It’s about not only not being afraid to hit with two strikes but relishing the opportunity. It’s about focusing even harder when there are two outs.
Sometime after a disappointing Friday, a light seemed to go on. Lessons that Gross has been teaching since last fall seemed to take hold at long last.
Auburn beat Ole Miss 8-5 on Saturday and 5-4 on Sunday to win the series and keep flickering postseason hopes alive.
“I felt like the last two days our guys learned the mental focus it takes for nine innings to play this game at a high level,” Gross said. “Whether you win or lose, you have to come out with that every day. I thought for the first time all year long that all nine of our guys were pulling in the same direction from a focus and intensity standpoint.”
Sunday, Auburn hitters were 7-for-14 with two outs. All five runs were scored with two out.
“Last night, I think we fouled off 14 pitches with two strikes and had five two-strike hits and put 106 pitches in the guy in five innings,” Gross said. “That’s not even counting the times we got 0-2 or 1-2 and got to 3-2 before an out was made. Guys were just battling and battling. We’ve done that some late in games, but we did it for the whole game last night and again today.”
The Tigers will need all the intensity and focus they can muster in the final six games of the SEC season. They are in 11th place at 27-19 overall and 9-15 in the SEC. Barring a collapse they’ll make the 12-team SEC Tournament, but to have a real chance to play in a regional, they’ll need at least four more SEC wins, maybe even more.
Those won’t come easily in series at Florida and back home against Arkansas.
Gross, a student assistant last season, signed on this season to coach hitters. But his influence goes even further. Right fielder Hunter Kelley gave him credit for having him prepared to rob Ole Miss of two home runs Sunday.
"We do that almost every day," Kelley said. "Coach Gabe hits us balls and we have to rob them. It's something we work on."
The Tigers have two nonconference games this week – at Jacksonville State on Tuesday night and against Samford at Plainsman Park on Wednesday night.