May 1, 2014
Senior left-hander Michael O’Neal is back in Auburn’s rotation as the Sunday starter (Zach Bland photo)
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. – For first-year Auburn baseball coach Sunny Golloway, a season that started with soaring expectations, is down to its last three weeks. And much remains to be decided.
Barring a total meltdown, the Tigers (25-20, 9-12) will be part of the 12-team Southeastern Conference Tournament in Hoover. They put themselves in position to make a late-season push by winning two of three at Arkansas last weekend. Will they make an NCAA regional? Will they earn the chance to make Golloway’s preseason predictions of a trip to Omaha for the College World Series come true?
The answers will come in series at home against No. 23 Mississippi State, on the road at Kentucky and at home against No. 6 LSU. Mississippi State visits this weekend, starting with a 6 p.m. game Friday at Plainsman Park.
“I think we are going to have the same sense of urgency we’ve had pretty much every weekend,” Golloway said. “… I’m trying to make sure that we as a program understand where we are, what we’re doing and what we need to do.”
Golloway’s first Auburn ride has been a bumpy one. After a 4-5 start against unranked opponents, the Tigers went into SEC play with eight wins in 10 games. They won two of three at home against Texas A&M and two of three on the road at Tennessee. They didn’t win another series until last weekend.
In losing four consecutive series, Golloway did not stand pat. Senior Michael O’Neal was in and out of the pitching rotation. Senior Terrance Dedrick was in and out of the closer’s role. Lineups changed frequently. On Sunday at Alabama, with the series tied at a game apiece, senior catcher Blake Austin, senior centerfielder Ryan Tella and senior second baseman Dan Glevenyak were not in the lineup. Dedrick made his first career start. Alabama won 4-3.
O’Neal, one of Auburn’s bellcows last season, was out of the rotation after two starts. He was replaced by Justin Camp and then by Dedrick and then by Trey Wingenter. Golloway says he’s secure now as the Sunday starter, joining Friday starter Dillon Ortman and Saturday starter Keegan Thompson.
“We are all starting to figure each other out a little bit,” Golloway said. “We tried a lot of things early as far as running, bunting and trying different guys in the three slot in the pitching rotation. We tried a lot of different lineups. I think our players are understanding our philosophy and we’re understanding our players a lot better.”
O’Neal (3-4, 3.43) pitched eight strong innings in the second game of last Saturday’s doubleheader and Auburn beat Arkansas 7-2 to win the series. Pitching coach Scott Foxhall, who was part of last season’s staff, has taken over calling pitches for O’Neal.
“I definitely feel a lot better now,” O’Neal said. “I know I’m going to take the ball on Sunday and we’re either going to be up 2-0 or we’re going to need a win or we’re going to be needing the series. I feel like I’m there to finish the series off and get us going into the next week.”
Austin says O’Neal has come through the hard times and returned to the form that made him one of the SEC’s top pitchers down the stretch last season.
“He’s throwing strikes, getting back to his rhythm,” Austin said. “Not as many offspeed pitches as we did early in the season. I guess we were trying to see if it would work. He’s not throwing that anymore. He’s going to show it. His fastball is going to let him do his thing.”
Ortman (8-2, 1.92) and Thompson (5-2, 1.74) have been consistent on the mound from the start of the season.
“Our team feels like they can win behind those guys,” Golloway said. “We haven’t finished the deal like we’d like to with Keegan. He’s been a tough-luck, non-decision guy or his record would be outstanding. I read a national publication that talked about Logan at Florida or Keegan Thompson at Auburn being the top freshman pitcher in the country. I would definitely agree with that.”
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: