To get a better read on the WarPlainsTigerMenEagles coming to the box this weekend, we asked SBN Blog Bro Chris Fuhrmeister of College And Magnolia for his thought on the squad.
dr.awesome504: The Auburn lineup seems to be anchored by Garrett Cooper (0.328/0.500/0.484) and Blake Austin (0.328/0.365/0.414). Outside of them, who have been the biggest contributors at the plate? Who has been the biggest surprise at the plate, good or bad?
Chris Fuhrmeister: True freshman second baseman Jordan Ebert has been Auburn's most consistent hitter for much of the year, and he had a 13-game hitting streak earlier in the season. He's hit a little bit of a rough patch, as most freshmen do, and his average has fallen to .313 from a season-high of .425 a couple of weeks ago. But obviously, .313 is nothing to complain about. Another key cog in the machine is left fielder Cullen Wacker. Wacker has been streaky, and Auburn's offensive success has at times coincided with his hot and cold streaks. But when he's on, he can rake. Auburn doesn't have a ton of power in its lineup, and Wacker is one of the Tigers' biggest bats, as evidenced by the bases-loaded double to tie Southern Miss in the eighth inning Wednesday night, a game Auburn won in extra innings.
While Ebert's success is a pleasant surprise, the most surprising development has been center fielder Ryan Tella's struggles. Tella was selected in the 11th round of last summer's draft by the Giants, and coming into this season, he was easily seen as Auburn's best player. He currently leads the team with 22 RBIs, but he's hitting just .284, and that's up from .269 on March 17. Tella is supremely talented, and once he gets it figured out, he'll be Auburn's best hitter, but right now, he's taking bad swings and failing to produce.
DA504: With a team ERA of 3.16, Auburn is currently ranked 10th in the SEC in pitching. Has the starting pitching been effective? Who are the main guys out of the bullpen and how have they performed?
CF: For the most part, Auburn's Friday and Saturday starters, lefties Daniel Koger and Michael O'Neal, have been pretty good. Koger's stats (0-1, 3.49 ERA) don't really show it, but he's a good job of keeping the Tigers in games. Against Vandy, he gave up five runs on two homers in the first 2 1/3 innings, but he didn't allow another Commodore to reach base through the next 3 2/3. O'Neal has been Auburn's best starter, compiling a 4-1 record and 1.99 ERA. He does a nice job of mixing his fastball with off-speed stuff, and his best outing came on March 9 against Brown, when he threw a six-hit shutout with six strikeouts.
Sunday's have been hit or miss, with most of the work handled by Rocky McCord (2-1, 4.95 ERA). He's had his good days (6 2/3 IP, 1 ER, 8 Ks on March 10 vs. Brown), but he's also had his struggles (1 2/3 IP, 4 ER, 0 Ks on March 17 vs. Vandy). I'm hoping Will Kendall, who is just getting back into action after having Tommy John Surgery last April, can get back into starting shape quickly. He was Auburn's best pitcher before being injured last year (4-0, 1.88 ERA). If Kendall can get back and pitch like that, Auburn's weekend rotation will be solid.
The bullpen has had its ups and downs. Conner Kendrick has been the best pitcher in relief (2-0, 0.79 ERA, 27 Ks, 22 2/3 IP). Auburn's relievers were nearly unhittable through the first couple of weeks, but they've had some meltdowns recently (five runs vs. Vandy on March 16, seven runs vs. Eastern Illinois on March 1). The primary bullpen guys are Kendrick, Justin Camp, Trey Wingenter, Chase Williamson and Terrance Dedrick. I feel pretty good when Kendrick and Camp are in, and Wingenter, a 6'7 freshman, is starting to pitch well. But when anyone else comes in out of the 'pen, I'm rocking in my seat like Leo Mazzone.
DA504: After getting swept by Vanderbilt in the opening SEC series, how do you expect this team to bounce back on the road in Baton Rouge? What needs to improve from last week that can help them against LSU?
CF: Auburn just needs to play complete games. The Tigers failed to do that against Vandy, and it resulted in three losses. In a Saturday 8-1 blowout, O'Neal was good in his start, but the bats failed to show up again, going without a hit through six innings for the second straight day, and the bullpen fell apart. If a close 5-2 game Friday night, Auburn played crisp defense and retired the final 20 Commodore hitters, but the bats never showed up, getting their first hit in the seventh. In an 8-6 defeat Sunday, the offense put together 11 hits, but poor starting pitching and defense put the Tigers in a 7-1 hole. Auburn did everything well at times against Vandy, but the Tigers never did everything well in a single game.
I'm hoping to see a better series from Auburn this weekend. The Tigers really had no business beating Southern Miss Wednesday, trailing 3-0 with just three hits going into the eighth, but they fought back and found a way to win. If they can build on that and take some confidence into Baton Rouge, they should be able to pick up at least one game.
DA504: What are the expectations for Auburn this year? Do you expect them to make the NCAA tournament?
CF: There were several question marks going into the year -- the rotation, the bullpen, new faces replacing solid contributors in the lineup -- so it was hard to know exactly what this team could do. But the hope was a finish in the middle of the SEC pack and a regional appearance. Right now, I'm just not convinced that will happen. The lineup goes cold too often, the bullpen has too much inconsistency and we just haven't found a Sunday starter yet. Until Auburn proves at least one of those issues is remedied, I can't really see the Tigers having enough success against a brutal SEC schedule.
However, I do think Auburn has the talent to get to the postseason. If the offense and/or bullpen can find more consistency, or if Kendall becomes a reliable Sunday starter, the Tigers should get to a regional. But at the moment, those are big "ifs."
DA504: Auburn has taken three series in a row against LSU. What exactly do you think Auburn does that gives LSU problems?
CF: Honestly, I just think a team like LSU raises Auburn's play to another level. Your version of the Tigers is the premier college baseball program, and opponents want beat the best. Seeing the purple and gold in the other dugout definitely brings out a little more fire. And when the series is at Alex Box Stadium, with such a great atmosphere, it just adds to the incentive for Auburn to bring its best to the field.
DA504: You guys recommended pepto and whiskey for this weekend when you did your power rankings. What kind of whiskey will you be drinking?
CF: Normally, I'd be sticking to Bulleit rye on the rocks if I'm at home and well swill bourbon mixed with soda if I'm at a bar in Auburn, but this weekend I'll be visiting my future in-laws in Pensacola. I would imagine I'll be enjoying something of the single-malt variety. Hopefully, I'll be having victory drinks instead of drowning my sorrows.