Recently, I was contacted by Kevin of the excellent Auburn baseball blog Plainsman Parking Lot, which features detailed statistical analysis and exacting series previews. Kevin asked if I was interested in exchanging interview questions prior to this weekend’s series between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Auburn Tigers, which represents the SEC opener for both squads. Naturally, I leapt at the opportunity. Here is how he responded to my questions:
Dawg Sports: Despite their 8-9 overall record, the Diamond Dogs have been solid at home, posting a 6-2 record at Foley Field. Auburn was swept by Arizona State in its only previous road series. How important to the outcome of this series will the Bulldogs’ home field advantage be, and what can the Tigers do to counteract that?
Plainsman Parking Lot: There really isn’t much Auburn can do to counteract it. The toughest part about Auburn’s schedule right now is the fact that we are hitting a stretch where we play around 14 games in 19 days to close out the month of March. When we went to ASU I thought the dimensions of the field would be a problem for Auburn (Plainsman Park has crevices and a jagged outfield, ASU is a straight diamond) but the Tigers handled it. I’m sure Coach John Palowski knows the secret will be getting a lead and getting it early in order to get the momentum. If the ASU series taught Auburn anything it’s that when AU is up big in one half inning they need the pitching staff to cut off any momentum in the following half. Last weekend killed our confidence in that regard because (in one specific instance and a couple other minor ones) Auburn built a big lead (sometimes as big as 5 runs) only to see the Sun Devils take it back.
Dawg Sports: Although this will be the first conference series for either squad, Georgia previously took a beating from Alabama in the Yellowhammer State, while Auburn’s scheduled outing against the Crimson Tide in Riverwalk Stadium was postponed. What impact, if any, will those two games---the one that did happen, and the one that didn’t---have on this weekend’s series, and how critical is it for the Tigers to win their first SEC series of the season?
Plainsman Parking Lot: I can’t say the Capital City Classic not happening had a huge affect on the Tigers. These guys have been playing baseball for a long time and know rain outs do happen. The bad thing about the AU/UA tilt was all the hype going in. I think Auburn was going to try to use that game to judge how far they’ve come in SEC play and how far they have left to go. On the flip side, I don’t think you can judge UGA’s performance by their one game against Alabama. When you think about it, both games were eerily similar with AU and UGA facing an SEC opponent midweek while gearing up for a huge nonconference game the upcoming weekend (ASU for AU, FSU for UGA) so the focus wasn’t probably totally there.
This series? This is huge for Auburn. On paper the Tigers have a better record, but UGA has had the edge in recent years. For Auburn, the goal is getting to Hoover and to do that you have to start out the gate strong. Right now, as I look around the league, there are three series the Tigers absolutely have to win to keep pace as one of the top 8 teams in the league: UGA, UT, and Mississippi State. We have to put ourselves in position to be better than 4 teams. Record wise and performance wise, those three teams are the ones who seem to be struggling and Auburn has to take advantage. For AU, the best scenario would be to win the series then watch UGA come on strong late and start knocking off teams like UK and Vandy which would then help Auburn gain a little ground. Bottom line, Auburn has to focus on winning the series so we don’t spend the rest of the SEC year playing from behind.
Dawg Sports: Brian Fletcher wears the number one on his jersey and stands at number one on the stat sheet with a .421 average, an .860 slugging percentage, 26 RBI, and seven home runs. Aside from Fletcher, which Auburn hitters ought to cause the Georgia pitching staff the most heartburn?
Plainsman Parking Lot: Hunter Morris is the first name that comes to mind. A former Red Sox second round pick, the first baseman has found his power stroke again (which Auburn fans are pleased with). He still has a bit to work on when it comes to his patience at the plate (I think he’s only drawn 3 walks on the season) but his order in the lineup could be affecting that. With Hunter batting before Fletch (normally) pitchers seemed to be more focused on battling Morris and making sure Fletch doesn’t come on with runners on.
Creede Simpson is another. The hometown product has been a great surprise this season and has really given Auburn some offensive balance at the top of the order. He has a little power, but his main weapon is speed and his ability to turn singles into doubles.
Finally, look out for Justin Fredejas. All signs are pointing to him returning to action this weekend. If he does, then Auburn will finally have a lead off speedster that we’ve been searching for the past couple of games after Justin went down to injury (hand) after the first game. The top of the lineup (on paper) is where Auburn does the most damage. However, CJP has sort of refocused that bottom half to pull their weight. That includes guys like Kevin Patterson (DH) and Utility guy Justin Bryant.
Dawg Sports: What has impressed you the most about the Auburn baseball team this season?
Plainsman Parking Lot: Our hitting philosophy overall has changed from last year. Last season, the Tigers would try to just slug the ball out of the park every play. The aggressive approach also killed Auburn (despite having one of highest HR totals in school history, we also broke the school record for Ks in a season).
This season, we’ve refocused on small ball. We (I might have to double check) lead the league in SAC hits. From timely bunting, to hit and runs, Auburn has focused on getting guys on, moving guys over, and getting them home. We don’t lack power (either leading or right behind Arkansas for HR lead in SEC) but now we aren’t reliant on HRs to score runs.
Dawg Sports: What about this Auburn team causes you the greatest concern?
Plainsman Parking Lot: Pitching. Plain and simple. Auburn’s weekend rotation is still in flux and the Tigers haven’t found the right combination. We have 6 starting pitchers: Slade Smith, Cole Nelson, Dexter Price, Grant Dayton, Corey Luckie, and Jon Luke Jacobs all competing for those coveted weekend spots. For now, it looks like Nelson and Luckie have secured two of them. That third is still a toss up. Because of the ineffectiveness with some of our starters, we’ve had to rely on our bullpen more. A bullpen which, to be honest, has struggled as well. The most frustrating thing is the amount of runs we’ve given up with 2 outs. I’ll have to look at the numbers later but more often than not, it seems that Auburn can get those first two men out easily then just simply implode. That reliance on the bullpen so early has led to the middle innings absolutely killing Auburn (you can see a post I did this week on it here).
Dawg Sports: Dexter Price and Cole Nelson are a combined 5-0 this season and both have sub-3.75 ERAs and are holding opposing hitters under .250 at the plate. Which of these two fine hurlers is Auburn’s ace? Put another way, which one ought to worry me more?
Plainsman Parking Lot: Nelson. Dexter Price made a midweek start this week where he made a case for his spot in the weekend (7ip/4h/6k/1bb/0er), so he’s done for a bit. Nelson came on during the first three games and kind of stole the role of Auburn’s ace. However, after his past start against Arizona State (2.1 ip/4h/3k/4bb/6er) and the struggle with control the start before that (3 wild pitches against Miami, OH) he’s losing that grip a little bit. If he regains his control and gets some run support then he can be lights out.
Dawg Sports: There are two schools of thought on the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry. Some fans say it’s a fraternal rivalry, more good-natured than either school’s blood feud with its in-state rival. Others feel clean old-fashioned hate toward the other school. Where do you fall on this question and why?
Plainsman Parking Lot: I’m from Alabama so the Tide are enemy number 1 in my book. When I was in school I never understood how friends from Georgia would list the Bulldogs as the team they’d like to beat more (and Memphis guys listing Ole Miss. Odd). Personally, and for a while, I didn’t care about UGA. It wasn’t hate as much as it was a hateful respect. However, after watching Verne Lundquist dance around (as well as the entire Sanford Stadium) to Souja Boy, UGA is moving up there. Plus, the past two football games (that were close but absolute heartbreakers for Auburn) and the Bulldogs are slowly moving up. It’s really just a football hate, though. In other sports, it’s a bit of indifference. Yet, against Alabama, I’d want to beat them in a game of Monopoly if it counted in the SEC standings.
My thanks go out to Kevin for taking part in this exchange of interviews, and for providing exceptional coverage of Southeastern Conference baseball, an underappreciated sport if ever there was one. Be sure to check out Plainsman Parking Lot for my answers to Kevin’s questions.