Auburn’s baseball team was ever so close Sunday to taking full control of the Southeastern Conference West Division race.
Senior Editor Phillip Marshall
Instead, after dropping a 7-6 decision in the series finale against Alabama, perhaps the wildest finish to a division championship race in SEC baseball history is upon us.
Four teams – Auburn, Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi State – are deadlocked at the top with 13-14 league records going into the final weekend of the season, which begins Thursday across the league. Ole Miss is a game behind and LSU is two games behind. The top four teams in the East have already clinched SEC Tournament bids. Four teams from the West will join them. The champion will be the No. 2 seed.
The Tigers aren’t where they might have been, but they still would have to be considered the favorites to emerge as the West Division champion for the simple reason that their final series, though on the road, is against Tennessee, the worst team in the league.
Alabama plays at home against South Carolina. Ole Miss goes to Arkansas. LSU goes to Mississippi State.
All Auburn needs to clinch a second consecutive berth in the SEC Tournament is to win one game over Tennessee or for LSU to lose one game.
It’s been a strange season for John Pawlowski’s third Auburn team. The Tigers have won six of nine SEC series, but the three they lost were all sweeps. They’ve struggled mightily in midweek games, particularly against instate teams. They have one more Tuesday night at South Alabama.
The result is there is more to be done than just trying to win the West or secure a berth in the SEC Tournament. To go into the tournament assured of finishing above .500, which is a necessity to get into an NCAA regional, the Tigers (28-24, 13-14) need to win at least two more games. If they do that, a regional bid is virtually assured.
There are some positive signs. The offense seems to be hitting its stride. Against Alabama’s very strong starting pitchers, only Vanderbilt has scored more runs than the 22 Auburn scored over the weekend.
For the second consecutive week, the Tigers got strong performances from starting pitchers Jon Luke Jacobs, Derek Varnadore and Slade Smith. Dillon Ortman was a star out of the bullpen in Saturday’s doubleheader sweep.
There are also concerns. Bullpen depth is lacking. Alabama scored three runs in the top of the ninth Sunday and held on. Samford won in bottom of the 10th last Tuesday. Against Georgia, the Tigers gave up nine ugly runs in the top of the ninth to lose an 11-5 lead.
But the bottom line is, through a wild and crazy season, the Tigers are in position to win their second consecutive West Division championship.
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