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May 21, 2013

Wishful thinking


An intriguing ride may have reached its final destination in Hoover on Tuesday when Auburn lost to Alabama in the Southeastern Conference tournament.

And I'm not necessarily discussing the 2013 season.

Coach John Pawlowski likely was on thin ice four months ago. His team, whose success or failure is measured by NCAA Tournament qualification, was coming off two consecutive seasons without a bid. And after an 0-7 start to the conference season this time around, his time on the Plains seemed limited to, well, today.

He's employed today. He'll be employed tomorrow.

Yet going much beyond that is nothing more than a guess. Pawlowski, whose team is 33-23, believes his team's NCAA Tournament drought will end in a few days. The miserable start was forgotten in May when the Tigers engineered three consecutive series wins against Ole Miss, Florida and Arkansas.

It's a good stretch of wins. A credible stretch of wins.

While the Tigers are No. 32 in the NCAA's latest Rating Percentage Index ranking, though, they finished their conference season with a 13-17 record. That's far from wondrous. It's not even mediocre.

That didn't dissuade Pawlowski on Tuesday.

"When you look at where this team was at the beginning of the season and to finish the way we did, winning three conference series, I feel like we've put ourselves in position to make the NCAA Tournament," he said.

There will be waiting.

Auburn must watch to see if Florida, a team with similar credentials, can make more of its opportunity in Hoover. It's notable that analysts at SEBaseball.com, ChasingOmaha.com and College Baseball Daily have the Tigers included in their projected NCAA Tournament fields.

"It is going to be nerve-wrecking on us," pitcher Conner Kendrick said. "We all want to play in postseason. It would be devastating if we don't play in a regional."

Does one loss to Alabama change all that?

Impossible to say. If there's a glaring deficiency, it's the Tigers' non-conference schedule. Early series against Maine, Eastern Illinois and Brown provided prime opportunities to play more high-profile opponents in an effort to boost statistical relevance.

Auburn instead opted for the path of least resistance.

Pawlowski will spend the rest of his week and weekend hoping for the best. If the Tigers don't make the 64-team field, it's difficult to see how embattled athletic director Jay Jacobs can ask supporters to show additional patience with the baseball program.

The team is 6-17 in Hoover since winning the 1998 SEC Tournament. It's winless in its last four games against Alabama in Hoover.

And with zero super regional berths since 2000, Auburn appears to be losing ground to its competition. A trip to the NCAAs at least would provide some evidence of meaningful improvement, perhaps enough to give Pawlowski another season to build, though this remains a team that finished 10th in a 14-team field.

Is that a success? Jacobs will make that determination.

Auburn NEWS


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