Auburn softball players have always split their season into three distinct parts — nonconference play, SEC play, and postseason play. It's a way to break a four-month grind into more manageable chunks and give them a chance to reset after each one is complete.
They certainly need that after the way Part 2 ended.
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Because from the latter part of nonconference play on into the early part of the league schedule, the Tigers were rolling. A full offseason with the coach who replaced Clint Myers had seemed to pay off — Mickey Dean's team swept six games in its final nonconference tournament and won three of its first four SEC series.
On April 12, after taking Game 1 of a series against South Carolina, Auburn was 33-8 overall, 9-4 in nonconference play and ranked as the No. 12 in the country.
On Wednesday, the Tigers will enter the SEC Tournament at 35-18 overall, 10-14 in conference play, having lost 10 of their last 12 games. They're the No. 10 seed in the conference and will face No. 7-seed Missouri at 3 p.m. CT in the first round.
Last time Auburn and @AggieSoftball was associated, things ended pretty well.— Auburn Softball (@AuburnSoftball) May 7, 2019
(P.S. Texas A&M is hosting the @SEC tournament, which Auburn is playing in.)
📰: https://t.co/zyyH5c5c4M#WarEagle | #PoundtheStone pic.twitter.com/JQwk25uQF9
It's difficult to pinpoint exactly where things went wrong. It might have been March 17, when senior ace Makayla Martin (who was 11-2 with a 1.31 ERA) suffered what appears to be a season-ending right-hand injury against Texas A&M. Auburn still won seven of its next 11 games after that, but the pitching staff was never quite the same without its workhorse starting and finishing series.
Chardonnay Harris (9-5, 2.79 ERA), Ashlee Swindle (9-8, 3.21 ERA) and Lexie Handley (6-3, 3.72) have done what they can in Martin's absence, but they were supposed to fill out the pitching staff, not be the leaders of it. There's a reason Auburn ranks 10th in the SEC with a 4.14 team ERA in conference games.
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But that alone doesn't explain 10 losses in 11 conference games to end the regular season, even if half of those came against teams seeded fourth (Kentucky) and sixth (Florida) in the standings. Opponents averaged six runs in those games and scored more than seven only twice. That shouldn't have been insurmountable nearly every time out for a team that averaged more than seven runs per contest through its first 41.
But it was. Auburn scored just 14 runs over those final 11 SEC games. It was shut out in four of those, getting no-hit for the first time since 2010 in one of them. It plated more than three runs in just one game, losing that one 8-4 to South Carolina.
Senior catcher Kendall Veach, the team's leading run producer with 20 home runs (one shy of Kasey Cooper's single season program record) and 47 RBIs, went 7 of 30 at the plate with two home runs in those games . Senior second baseman Casey McCrackin, the team's batting average leader, went 9 of 34. Senior outfielders Morgan Podany and Bree Fornis have gone hitless in their last nine and 16 at-bats, respectively.
All four of those players were drafted by the same National Pro Fastpitch team (the Beijing Shougang Eagles, who are run by the Chinese Softball Assocation that employed Myers as a coach as of last year) on April 15 — two games into that late-season swoon.
"We've had a rough couple of weeks, but we haven't quit," McCrackin said. "We just have to be confident."
The silver lining for the Tigers, if there is one to be found in all that, is that they're in no danger of missing the NCAA Tournament, not with the level of competition they have faced in the SEC. There will be a place for them in an NCAA Regional, even if it will likely be on the road for a second straight year.
But Auburn will have to perform far better in the circle and at the plate than it has over the last four-plus weeks if it has any hope of ending Part 3 of its season better than it ended Part 2. The SEC Tournament would be the ideal place to start.
"I just think our team is looking forward to the tournament, to be quite honest," Dean said. "Now, it's truly about you. It's not about your opponent, because you don't get a whole lot of time to scout. A lot of teams we've already seen or played within the last two years, so it's really about you."
This article is written by Josh Vitale from The Montgomery Advertiser and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.