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On Deck: A preview from the other dugout

For this important weekend that will decide the SEC West, I wanted to provide some unique insight into Auburn.  I have not paid as much attention as I should have to their club, so I sought out an expert on Auburn Baseball.  Plainsman Parking Lot was nice enough to do a Q&A about their club.  The answers to the questions they asked me can be found here.  Kevin Ives' insight is after the jump.  (You can follow him on twitter @AUPPL)

Auburn Baseball: absolutely ballin' in 2010

Q: Everyone thinks high batting average when they think of Auburn.  Are we missing something?  What can we expect from a John Pawlowski team?  
A: It's more than average for Auburn. The Tigers have managed to use small ball to their advantage and it's really turned the team around offensively. Last year, Auburn would absolutely crush the ball, but would strikeout at inopportune times and make opposing pitchers look like Tim Lincecum. In the offseason Coach Pawlowski made it a focus to reduce those strikeouts and work more to manufacture runs. Early on it looked like the Auburn power would have been sacrificed, but that wasn't the case as just last week this year's Tiger team broke the team HR record (104) set just last year (103). So even with the return of the power, Auburn has still managed to be patient. You can credit Hitting Coach Link Jarett with that. Auburn baseball has struck out 112 fewer times and scored 102 more runs and last year. Average is up 68 points. OBP up 46. Especially this weekend, with the limited baserunners that Barrett and Pomeranz are going to allow, I'd bet CJP does a lot of bunting and some stealing. I wouldn't be surprised if the first pitch Justin Fradejas sees tonight he tries to bunt. Offensively we will load up with Fradejas and his speed and then use Trent Mummey, Brian Fletcher, or Hunter Morris to bring him home. Essentially, Pawlowski loads the top of the order up with 3 back to back to back clean up hitters. After Morris it's all about run producing, small ball. Get guys on and move them over. So in a way he's split the lineup in half. They hardest thing to scout for Auburn would be just who you could shut down to try to neutralize the Tigers. Hunter Morris may be Auburn's best overall hitter but he doesn't lead the team in average (that, surprisingly, is 3B Dan Gamache). Pawlowski will mix and match his lineup depending on the pitcher. Yes, we can slug the ball, but Auburn isn't afraid to slow the game down and go station to station.

Q: Talk about the success of Pawlowski from an Auburn's fan perspective and your current thoughts on the state of the program?

A: I'm excited personally. I didn't have any doubt that Pawlowski was the right man for the job, but some other Auburn fans wondered who he was and why Auburn was going after the College of Charleston's head man.. He's really embraced the school, the program, and the attitude. Him and the player both are active on campus and use every moment they can to sell the program to the students. My only concern is the number of Auburn fans that might jump off the ship next year. The 2011 season will be Pawlowski's biggest test as a coach has he's going to completely rebuild the club offensively. If he can return Auburn to the SEC Tournament next year then I think Auburn has the makings of a coach who could be one of the nation's best. 

Q: Hunter Morris and Trent Mummey are two big names that come to mind when we hear about Auburn Baseball.  Who else do we need to know about?
A: I mentioned Justin Fradejas above but he needs to be talked about. He's the spark plug for the offense and gives AU a true lead off man. Brian Fletcher is the third of Auburn's bash brothers and will absolutely destroy any high fastball that comes his way. Fletcher is susceptible to a good breaking ball (advantage Pomeranz) but his high upper cut swing means that anything chest high is going to leave the yard. Friday, you'll see Kevin Patterson and wonder why a Tight End is playing Baseball. Patterson is a beast and despite only seeing limited at bats (because of his struggles against LHP) he's still hit 14 HRs. He actually has more extra base hits than he does singles and his slugging % is at a crazy .862. 

Q: Talk about Auburn's pitching staff a little bit.  Has an Ace separated himself from the rest?
A: That's Auburn's biggest struggle. Unlike Ole Miss, who has two guys who you know will trot out the first two days, Auburn has no clue who will take the mound. We've lacked consistency all year. Cole Nelson started as the ACE but after a couple of terrible starts was moved to the bullpen. He had his best outing of the year last season (Complete Game shutout against Tennessee) and could be back on track. Grant Dayton has, I guess, been our defacto Ace, but that's be default and not by design. Just by being the most consistent guy he's cemented his place as the 3rd Starter. Same goes for Cory Luckie (our normal Friday Night guy). He's had great starts, he's had so-so starts but none that I would deem terrible. For Auburn we honestly have around 7 pitchers (Dexter Price, Cole Nelson, Cory Luckie, Jon Luke Jacobs, Slade Smith, Grant Dayton, Stephen Kohlscheen) who could all start but only 4 (Nelson, Smith, Luckie, Dayton) who I'd feel completely comfortable with on the mound. Jacobs is battling injuries, Kohlscheen's flirtation with the rotation lasted all of one game, Price has a nice record and ERA but he's gotten a bad case of the yips lately and his midweek outings haven't been stellar. You'll see Luckie tonight and he won't overpower anyone and like I've said before he's a Greg Maddux type guy in his delivery and his mindset. He'll use a ton of offspeed stuff and move all over the plate, but normally low to get ground balls. However, pitching like that has some huge drawbacks and it all depends on the up that night. If the ump has a tight zone then Luckie is going to struggle because eventually to get a strike he'll have to come inside with a fastball or hang his changeup. If he can locate he can be near un-hittable. If he's missing Auburn can be in for a world of hurt. Nelson has an impressive frame and can be an imposing force on the mound. He's worked more and more on putting balls into play instead of blowing it past guys and it's worked to his advantage. As for Dayton, all he does is win. He just finds a way. I wish I could explain it and understand it more but it basically boils down to his mindset. He will battle and won't just give up on a batter. 

Q:  What is the Tigers' achilles heel?

A:  Most fans might say it's our bullpen, but I honestly think it's the starting pitching, their inconsistency, and how deep they can go into a game. We have enough arms in our bullpen and so many styles that Auburn can mix and match advantages and make the bullpen effective. However, when Auburn has to turn to the bullpen early (6th inning usually) then Auburn is going to struggle because we are going to put too much emphasis and pressure on them. If the Auburn starter can work 6+ innings then I have complete faith in the bullpen. That might be a little bit of the fan in me talking but I think if an Auburn starter can go 7 strong then we've also had 7 innings to get cranked. 

Also our fielding is suspect. Especially at 3B. Errors will absolutely derail this team. There's nothing much else to say about it, Auburn has completely blown games this year based soley on errors. No fault of the bullpen and no fault on the offense. All in the field. 

Finally, offensively, Auburn has shown that it can be dominated by a solid starting pitcher. Renaudo at LSU looked like he was back to his 2009 form against Auburn (and yet not against anyone else. Thanks Tony). Dyson at South Carolina, Smyly at Arkansas, even McCray at UT. All had solid outings against Auburn. Maybe they've turned a corner but with a shut down arm, Auburn can be contained. Especially late in a game when Auburn might be down because then the Tigers will become super aggressive and go first-pitch swinging which they NEVER need to do.

Q:  This has been a successful season for CJP and his Tigers.  Since great play tends to get fan bases really excited, what are the current expectations for this season?  Regional?  Super?  Omaha?
I know Auburn fans now are salivating about the possibility of hosting a Regional. However, the goal going in to this season was simple: Return to Hoover. We finally punched that ticket and ended the 6 year drought last week. That, to me, makes this season a success. Everything else is icing on the cake. Just getting that big Hoover Gorilla off our backs will let the Tigers play looser and possibly do some damage in a regional. 

Q: What are your predictions for the series?

Pomeranz worries me but if Auburn can be patient and wait for him to get wild and throw walks then I like Auburn's chances. He seems to be alternating good start with bad start (LSU bad, MSU good, Arkansas bad, Alabama good) and we might be catching him at a good time. I don't know if he's still over that strained pec but either way, Auburn will be challenged. I would say that is Cory Luckie pitches well tonight and gets out of the fifth inning relatively safe then Auburn can take tonight. Outside of that? think Auburn has the tools and the capabilities to win the series and will come in extremely hungry. Pawlowski has the mindset of the team right where they want them.I think just the offensive make up of Auburn, the fact that so much of this season is riding on their series, and some question marks in the Ole Miss bullpen, means Auburn can take 2 out of 3.

So, what are your predictions?