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COLUMBIA, S.C. — For the first half of SEC play, it was easy to get the sense that Auburn was simply treading water. With a series loss to rival Alabama to wrap up the first five conference series, the Tigers were 5-10 and had won just one series, at home against Georgia the second week of league play.
They played hard every week and they could reasonably be described as pesky, but it wasn’t resulting in too many wins.
But that’s changed in the last two series. Last weekend, Auburn took a series against Mississippi State, winning two very different kinds of games—a 2-1 pitcher’s duel in the series opener and a 12-11 slugfest in the finale, with a tight 11-10 loss sandwiched in between.
If you’re inclined to shrug your shoulders at that result because MSU is a team battling just to make it to the SEC Tournament, fair enough, but you can’t help but be impressed with what the Tigers have done this weekend against South Carolina on the road.
After an 8-3 win Friday night, Auburn clinched a series win with a 9-5 victory Saturday afternoon, a win punctuated by two home runs from first baseman Cooper McMurray.
This series win is far and away Auburn’s best result of the season, and in winning four of its last five SEC games, it’s also the hottest this team has been since conference play began.
“We’ve been waiting for this moment, and not much of a better opportunity to do it (than) here at South Carolina, against one of the best teams in the country, one of the best programs in history,” McMurray said. “That’s what we’re looking at it as—a great opportunity for us.”
If Auburn continues to play like it has the last two weekends, it will have many more big opportunities ahead, like an opportunity to play in the postseason and an opportunity to make a deep run, as it has in two of the last three postseasons.
There are a number of reasons for Auburn’s resurgence, and one of them is McMurray.
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The Kansas transfer got off to a bit of a slow start, thanks in part to an injury that has limited him to 28 games this season, but he’s scalding hot right now.
In addition to his two home runs Saturday, he hit five round-trippers last week alone to win SEC Extra player of the week honors, and nine of his 12 total homers (second on the club to Bryson Ware’s 16) have come in April. He’s also proven to be more than a swing-from-the-heels hacker, as he leads Auburn in batting average in SEC games at .378.
According to McMurray, there are a couple of factors that have allowed him to take off.
“I think it’s part getting healthy, but also listening to Coach (Gabe) Gross and keeping everything simple at the plate,” he said. “Whenever I get too big and try to swing and hit home runs, that’s where the swing and miss comes in, but when I’m staying short and simple, I think that’s when the success comes.”
Auburn head coach Butch Thompson agrees, but would also add another element to the mix.
“Cooper being a first-year player (in the SEC), to have that resting heart rate, not get sped up, play the game and just look for a pitch and look in a zone he can handle (is impressive),” Thompson said. “He’s just doing a good job of that. His process and everything looks like it’s on point.”
Thompson also made note of how you can see McMurray’s poise on defense, and that really shined on Saturday in a momentum-shifting play in the second inning.
Auburn led 6-0 going into the inning, but South Carolina scored a run in the bottom of the second on an RBI double by Jonathan French and were threatening for more with French on second and Caleb Denny on third.
The nine-hole hitter Will Tippett hit a sharp ground ball to McMurray at first. He caught the ball cleanly, clocked that Denny had broken for home on contact and in one fluid motion, fired a strong throw to catcher Nate LaRue. Denny froze a few steps from the plate and retreated toward third but was caught by LaRue for the second out of the inning. French, who had made it to third, made a mental mistake in the moment by heading back toward second rather than staying on third and was quickly tagged out.
Just like that, the inning was over and Auburn had kept South Carolina from putting up a crooked number. The base-running mistakes were the big issue on that play for the Gamecocks, but that was all set in motion by McMurray calmly making that play and an accurate throw.
“We work on that a lot, just situational fungo, just being in the right spot at the right time and being able to make the plays that can help the pitching staff and ultimately help this team win,” McMurray said.
On the mound, things are still very much a work in progress for Auburn, but even a harsh critic of the Tigers’ pitching staff would have to allow that there are signs of progress.
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Tommy Vail steadying the rotation as a legitimate Friday guy has been the biggest development, but don’t overlook how vital left-hander Konner Copeland has been in his last two outings. Last weekend against Mississippi State, he threw 4.2 innings, giving up three hits and two unearned runs. On Saturday against South Carolina, he gave up one hit and two runs in four innings and needed just 56 pitches to close out the game.
It’s been a rough go for Copeland this season—his ERA is still 8.04 after Saturday’s outing—but if he continues to take steps forward, perhaps he gets another crack at joining the rotation at some point in the next few weeks. And if nothing else, he’s turned into an intriguing relief option, and Auburn can’t have enough of those right now.
“The story on the mound today for me was Konner Copeland,” Thompson said. “Two weekends in a row, he’s just pounded the strike zone for us. We feel like we can do more as a ballclub if we can find the strike zone more. Players are allowed to get better. Konner Copeland is definitely one of those new emerging guys that has helped us get two SEC wins the last two weeks by just shoving the ball in the strike zone.”
There’s also a lot to like with Saturday’s starter, righthander Christian Herberholz. He gave up three hits and one run to South Carolina on Saturday, and over his last three starts, he’s allowed nine hits and three runs in 13 innings.
Not unlike Vail, Herberholz isn’t always the most efficient pitcher—he lasted just four innings against the Gamecocks in large part because he was at 92 pitches—but he’s consistently giving the team a chance to win, and he leads the team in ERA in SEC games at 2.59.
“He’s Vail 2.0,” Thompson said. “For whatever his skill is, you have to give him credit in this environment to be able to pitch around (runners) and hang in there and be able to close innings down and not let it bust open.”
There’s no two ways about it; Auburn is dangerous right now. The Tigers are as gritty and pesky as they have been all season, but now they’re playing with confidence, and with each passing week, they seem to get better at figuring out how to fit the pieces together.
“I’d have to have a magic eight ball to answer that one. We’ll see,” Thompson said when asked if his team was peaking at the right time. “Hopefully you gain confidence from having success in playing a team like this. I hope so. I hope the answer is yes.”
Thompson is right in that we can’t know what the future holds for any team down the stretch. Baseball is a funny game and momentum can be as fickle as a bad hop on the infield dirt or running into an opposing pitcher who just has your number.
But with what it has done this weekend, it’s hard to fight the feeling that Auburn is heading in the right direction and we’ve perhaps yet to see the best version of this team.