Auburn, Ala.--Heading into this weekend’s pivotal SEC Western Division series at LSU that marks the halfway point of the conference schedule, the Auburn Tigers (18-14, 5-7) find themselves two games behind Alabama for first place and two games ahead of #21 LSU (22-12, 3-9) for last. That’s how close things are in what coach John Pawlowski dubbed the Wild Wild West.
“From top to bottom who is the best team?” Pawlowski asked. “I think it’s going to take every series. It’s going to come down to the last weekend of the year. I think there is so much parity in our conference on both sides…I think you’re starting to see the effects of it. Everybody is trying to find a way to win one game or two games here or there and stay in the hunt.”
In addition to the challenge of playing a traditional power on the road this weekend, Auburn arrived in Baton Rouge without its top starting pitcher, Derek Varnadore, who was unable to make the trip because of a sore arm. Pawlowski has yet to make a decision on who will take Varnadore's spot in the pitching rotation.
Perhaps no team can point to the parity and toughness of playing in the SEC more than LSU. Ranked in the Top Five in the pre-conference play, the Tigers have struggled to get things going with sweeps against both Florida and Arkansas putting them in a huge hole. Pawlowski said despite its record LSU is a tough opponent to match up against.
“I look at their talent and the players they have and it’s a tribute to the players and coaches in this league and the facilities and the fans and the commitment that each school has made,” Pawlowski said. “They are a very good team. I think records at this point are misleading because depending on who you play and your strength of schedule, but it all comes down to how you perform in this conference. It’s not very forgiving and if you have a weakness it tends to show up pretty quickly.”
Sometimes all it takes for a team is one weekend to break out of things and get back in the race. Pawlowski is hoping that last weekend was just that time for his club as the Tigers went on the road and swept Kentucky behind a strong offensive showing and clutch pitching from starters Derek Varnadore and Jon Luke Jacobs as well as relievers Zach Blatt, Cory Luckie and Dillon Ortman.
“I think it was a huge lift,” Pawlowski said. “Our team has worked extremely hard and they are a very confident group, but when you don’t see the end results sometimes you star to doubt yourself. We went on the road and played very well. I think it certainly boosted their confidence.”
The lift came in the form of junior pitcher Zach Blatt. Coming on in relief of Andrew Morris on Friday night, the Opelika native pitched five and one/third strong innings to keep the Tigers in the game. With the struggles in opening games Pawlowski and his staff decided it was Blatt’s turn to get the ball first as he’ll be getting the Friday night start against freshman Kurt McCune (5-1, 1.80 ERA). With a record of 1-2 and an ERA of just 6.53 it’s a gamble, but Pawlowski said he likes what Blatt brings to the table.
“He had a tremendous high school career and was very successful,” Pawlowski said. “He’s a guy that is a competitor. He can go 100+ pitches. He’s a tough competitor and wants to be out there. We thought about it before as a possible starter, but when he went out there and did what he did Friday night it makes you stop and think.”
With so many game in such a short period of time the last month and a half, the practice time has been lessened because of midweek games, travel to away games, etc. Pawlowski said without a game during the week this time around it has given the Tigers an opportunity to work on some of the fundamentals of the game that have been lacking this season.
“When you play 56 games you don’t have a lot of opportunities to practice,” Pawlowski said. It makes it difficult. If you play two games during the week or even one it leaves one day of practice. Guys are worn out and tired and fatigued from traveling and playing. I think it’s really important. (Tuesday) we had a long practice and we just worked on the fundamentals, a lot of things you work on in the fall. This time of the year you usually don’t have that opportunity. I think it’s a huge positive to be in a practice mode right now.”
With Blatt on Friday night it gives the Tigers some options the rest of the way as either Cory Luckie (1-1, 5.20) or Jon Luke Jacobs (1-2, 2.74) is expected to get the ball on Saturday against freshman Kevin Gausman (2-3, 4.60) for LSU. On Sunday Auburn is listed as TBA while LSU will have Ben Alsup (4-3, 3.27) for the final game of the series. Game times are scheduled for 7 p.m. on Friday, 6:30 p.m. on Saturday and 1 p.m. on Sunday.
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