Auburn was supposed to finish last in the West Division and a third-place finish was penciled in for Alabama. Wrong and wrong, at least to this point in the spring.
The Tigers enter the 7 p.m. series opener in Tuscaloosa tied atop the West Division with LSU while the Crimson Tide went the opposite direction. A light-hitting lineup has Alabama (10-19, 1-8 SEC) last in the league facing its first losing season since 1994.
“We just about got dirt thrown on us in the grave, but at the same time, you’re at a point where a series win would certainly mean a lot to this club right now,” Alabama coach Mitch Gaspard said.
Auburn, meanwhile, won its first three SEC series for the first time in nine seasons and climbed to No. 23 nationally. Wins in seven of the last 10 games gave the Tigers momentum that’s eluded the Tide all season.
Losses in 10 of the last 12 games can play with the psyche of a team with a young pitching staff. But the troubles were spread through all aspects of the team.
The Tide ranks last in batting average (.254) by a margin of 15 points and its team ERA (5.02) is far behind 11th-best Vanderbilt (4.55).
A 9-5 win at South Alabama on Tuesday, however, gave the Tide reason to believe. It’s getting 10.8 hits in the past five games after averaging 7.9 in the first 24. Ben Moore, who’ll move from catcher to right field remains the most consistent regular starter. His .365 batting average is followed by seniors Jared Reaves (.345) and Taylor Dugas (.336).
Reaves said hitting coach Andy Phillips corrected a few swing issues to fuel that hitting turnaround. Gaspard’s mental conditioning also played a factor when South Alabama jumped ahead 5-4 in the sixth inning.
“You can just feel it, guys were really starting to relax,” Reaves said. “You’ve got to enjoy it. When we got down, it was ‘so what, really?’ Here we come again.”
Auburn (17-11, 6-3 SEC) remains steady at the plate. The Tigers aren’t the slugging team it was a few years ago, but its .306 batting average is fourth-best in the league. Sophomore Ryan Tella’s .396 average easily beats Creede Simpson’s second-best .339.
Auburn hasn’t had fewer than seven hits since SEC play began and it belted out 11 in an 8-3 win over the Tide on March 6 in Montgomery.
Tiger coach John Pawlowski said that’s no reason to sleep on this series.
“We know they’re going to play hard. It happens to be one of our rivals. We know they’re going to go out there and compete. It doesn’t matter where we play or who we play — you just have to go out and compete. I certainly haven’t looked at their record as far as that being a different factor (regarding) if they’ll be more motivated or not. Anytime you get Auburn and Alabama together, there’s motivation.”
Tonight’s series opener will be televised by Fox Sports South and the 3 p.m. Saturday game is set for CSS. The series ends with a 1 p.m. Sunday meeting not scheduled for television.