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May 24, 2012

AU awaits NCAA Tournament fate

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It's sit and wait time for the Auburn baseball team.

The Tigers entered the SEC Tournament knowing they needed wins to bolster their resume for the NCAA selection committee. John Pawlowski's team fell in their opener to No. 2 Florida, rebounded to beat Georgia on Wednesday night, but was eliminated on Thursday by two-time defending national champion South Carolina.

It wasn't without a fight. Carolina completely dominated the first four innings holding a 5-0 lead. But Auburn battled back with a trio of runs in the fifth, sixth and eighth innings Pawlowski was proud of his team's grit.

"I'm really proud of how we competed. I thought they battled in all three games of this tournament and today was another battle. I can't say enough about how we competed and gave us a chance to win," Pawlowski said.

AU entered Thursday with an RPI of 59 according to WarrenNolan.com. The question is, will their body of work and strength of schedule of 29th nationally be enough to bounce off the NCAA Tournament bubble and avoid missing the tournament for the second straight season?

"I don't know," said Pawlowski.

Pawlowski can point to series wins over No. 2 LSU, No. 14 Arkansas, No. 21 Mississippi State, and No. 29 Ole Miss. Arkansas and Ole Miss were series wins on the road. They have single wins over No. 2 Florida and on the road at No. 8 Arizona also.

But the story of this year's team is inconsistency, with the good, comes the bad. In this case, the bad is being swept by last place Alabama, South Carolina, and Georgia. A home series loss to Missouri, losses at home to Purdue, Southern Miss, and Jacksonville State, and a midweek road loss at Samford don't help the cause.

Auburn certainly had to overcome some injuries that occurred at inopportune times in the season. The Tigers lost starting pitcher Will Kendall on April 7 to an elbow strain. Kendall was 4-0 with a 1.88 ERA before his season ending injury and was the ace of the staff through the first two months.

Left-fielder Cullen Wacker suffered a sprained knee on May 4 against Georgia and didn't play against Arkansas or Florida to end the regular season. Wacker made only two plate appearances in the SEC Tournament in DH roles. Wacker ended the season as AU's second leading hitter at .350.

On May 10, starting first baseman Garrett Cooper suffered a strained oblique against Arkansas. Cooper missed the final seven regular season games and the SEC Tournament. Cooper was AU's third leading hitter at .324, and his five homeruns was second on the team.

DH and relief pitcher Justin Bryant, who made two SEC Tournament relief appearances and hit a solo homerun, knows all too well the up-and-down season that transpired. He simply hopes for one more opportunity.

"It's hard to put the whole season into a couple words because we've done so much, and we've been through ups and downs as a team," Bryant said. "That's what you go through. It just makes you closer, and we've definitely had our ups and downs. It's been a good ride, and I'm hoping we get a bid."

"I'd really like to get in a regional, I think we'd have success in that format," senior pitcher Derek Varnadore said.

Most analysts had Auburn on the outside looking in during recent NCAA Regional predictions. Will one win in Hoover, plus some impressive series wins be enough?

"I think we've competed well all year, there's been no quit in this team," said Pawlowski. "I don't know what transpired today, I know we've got a good club, our team has played well and we're as competitive as can be. If it's meant to be then it is, but we have a good quality baseball team."



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