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April 11, 2013
Time to capitalize
AUBURN | The Tigers opened the Southeastern Conference season with a whimper, getting swept at LSU and dropping a home series to Alabama.
As starts go, it was miserable. And it seemed to foretell a messy spring on the Plains, which was the last things fans wanted to see after a messy fall and wintertime troubles on the basketball court. Yet John Pawlowski's team managed to reverse some negative trends by winning a series at No. 18 Texas A&M last weekend.
It was a surprise. It also can be a catalyst.
The Tigers play host to Georgia this weekend -- a team that has lost 10 of its last 12 conference series. Pawlowski believes what happened in eastern Texas last weekend provides an ideal springboard for his team and its hopes to reach the postseason once again.
"We've played 12 (league) games with 18 to go," he said. "There's a lot of maneuvering yet to go within the standings and where we can end up for the second half of our season."
A winning streak isn't the only thing Auburn has going for it this weekend. First baseman Garrett Cooper went off against the Aggies, going 6-for-14 with two doubles and two home runs. His first homer of the series moved Auburn ahead during the 10th inning Friday and came against a Texas A&M reliever who hadn't yielded a run all year.
He's now among SEC leaders in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, doubles and homers. And it's not a fluke -- Cooper is hitting .394 over his last ten games.
"He likes to be in that pressure situation," Pawlowski said. "A lot of it is maturity; he's given us more mature at-bats as we've gotten deeper into our conference ... season."
Pitching also has been a strength lately.
Pawlowski now uses an all-lefty starting rotation that has played a major role in the Tigers' mini renaissance. Conner Kendrick has been a source of quality starts since being moved into the rotation two weeks ago. He concedes plenty of hits (19 in 11 2/3 innings) but manages to undermine rallies.
The real ace has been junior Michael O'Neal, Auburn's Saturday starter who won his sixth game of the season last weekend. Though he doesn't throw particularly hard, most everything O'Neal heaves toward the plate has a downward tilt.
Batters have a difficult time lofting O'Neal's pitches.
As a result, he rarely allows extra-base hits. That trend coupled with strong command (three walks during his last 23 innings) has given Auburn a consistent, Saturday advantages.
"He just doesn't throw a lot of pitches in the same spot in the zone. The ball moves tremendously," Pawlowski said. "He's just so poised. He does a great job out there. He gives our team a chance to be in a ball game, a change to win a ball games."
A win against Georgia could help the Tigers move out of the Western Division cellar and provide even more psychological affirmation. Auburn then finishes April with road trips to a pair of underachieving programs in Mississippi State and Missouri.
A path to the postseason has appeared.
Still, a strong weekend against Georgia is a must to keep that path uncluttered and accessible.