May 21, 2010, Auburn Slugger Ryan Jenkins (6) is greeted at home plate after 3 run homer against Ole Miss. The game clinched the SEC West for the Tigers.
Almost every one acknowledges that the SEC is America’s top football conference. However, what many don’t realize, is the SEC is also one of the nation’s toughest baseball leagues. Some say it might even be the toughest.
The SEC has won nine national championships in the last 21 years including the last three in a row. And with eight teams in the top 25 this year, the league is poised to finish at the top again.
Yes it can be intimidating to compete in the SEC … especially on the road. This is the part of the season where it gets harder.
And Auburn starts the hard part of their season today when the Tigers open league play on the road against Ole Miss.
The last time Auburn played in Oxford was in 2010 when the Tigers clinched the SEC West Division Championship. Today will be a strong test for the Tigers (10-7) as they have to face a hot Ole Miss team (14-3) that is ranked No.12 in the country.
It will be a far different scenario than the 2010 meeting. The 2010 Tigers were a power hitting team that led the nation in home runs. The Tigers hit five homers that night on their way to trouncing the Rebels18-4.
Since that time, the NCAA has mandated a dulled down bat that has caused teams like Auburn to retool and change their strategy.
The common thought today is to recruit for speedy runners and win with small ball or in other words rely on pitching, defense, and base stealing.
Few teams are as good at the small ball game as Auburn. The Tigers lead the SEC with 19 sacrifice bunts and have 10 bunt base hits. Dan Glevenyak is the SEC leader with six sac bunts and Jarred Smith is tied for seventh, while Bobby Andrews leads the team with three bunt base hits out of his total eight hits.
The Tigers head into the Oxford series leading the SEC in walks (91), sac bunts (19), steals (50) and steal attempts (67 or .75%) The Tigers are also second in the league in on base percentage (.429), hits (181), and triples (seven) and caught stealing (17). The 50 stolen bases lead the nation.
The second leg of the small ball strategy is pitching. The three Tiger starters (Derek Varnadore, Will Kendall and Daniel Koger) are having a great year. In the last series against Belmont, the trio had a combined 2.25 ERA with 15 strike outs in 20 innings. They only allowed 10 runs in 27 innings pitched.
So the small ball strategy seems to be working for Auburn, except for one thing …
theTigers have seven losses. The problem is the Tigers have left 167 runners on base through 17 games. That’s almost 10 potential runs left on base per game.
Small ball is suppose to be ‘the thing’ for baseball purist but as a fan, I like to see a big time hitter in the lineup that can step up and bring those runners in. So far this season, Auburn has not been able to find that hitter.
Veteran Creede Simpson may be the closest guy the Tigers have to it right now. Creede leads the team with 10 multi-hit games and is among the SEC leaders in batting average (.410, 7th), on base percentage (.554, 1st), hits (25, 5th), and walks (18, 1st) and steals (7, 4th), and (20), triples (seven).
What the Tigers desperately need is a consistent Designated Hitter that can produce numbers like that.
The number of runners being stranded is almost unfathomable. A total of 167 LOB’s in 17 games – a pace that, if continues, could wind up being 560 plus by the end of the season. I know that small ball is suppose to manufacture runs but hitting a lot of singles is not enough to get the runners across the plate.
The Tigers have shot themselves in the foot at times as well, by making way too many errors (the third leg of the small ball strategy). Case in point was the Purdue game Mar. 2 when Auburn made five errors including two in the ninth to lose by one run 9-8.
However, all this does not mean that Auburn can’t be a contender in the SEC West. Quite the contrary, in fact, I’m not one to make predictions but I will here: I believe Auburn may go to the Big Dance this year but at the very least, I predict theTigers will play in Hoover in the SEC Tournament.
And furthermore, if they can reduce those errors and start pushing some of those stranded runs across the plate, they may even go deep into the post season. Dare I mention Omaha? Yes, I think so. But then again, I have often been accused of being a starry eyed dreamer.
At any rate, the start of the hard part of the season begins today at 6:30 p.m. in Oxford Mississippi …
Go Tigers – Beat Dem Rebel Bears!