AU BASEBALL: Tigers inch closer to first SEC Tourney since ‘03

In the midst of a grueling week of final exams, John Pawlowski found some time Wednesday to gather his team together at Plainsman Park.

He had a simple message for them. Don’t start thinking beyond Hoover.

With nine games left to play, the Tigers (30-15, 12-9 SEC) are sitting pretty in their hopes of making the conference tournament for the first time since 2003. They’re four games ahead of Tennessee for the final slot in the eight-team tournament and begin a stretch of six straight home games against SEC teams with losing records tonight against Mississippi State.

Auburn, though, may be on the verge of something bigger than a simple tournament invitation.

The Tigers, ranked in the nation’s top 25 in most polls and a consensus RPI top-15 team, are two games behind Ole Miss and Arkansas for first place in the West and are a strong finish away from potentially hosting their first NCAA regional since 2003.

Pawlowski said the Tigers are still approaching their goals one at a time.

“Our focus is the same that it’s been since SEC play started. Our short-term priority and our No. 1 goal is to get into the SEC Tournament. That’s our No. 1 focus,” Pawlowski said. “If we can accomplish that goal, then we’ll move on to our second goal. But I want these guys to understand you have to take one step at a time and that first step is getting into the SEC Tournament.”

Pawlowski then acknowledged that he probably wasn’t the first coach to deliver this type of speech.

“I know that’s coaches’ speak and coaches’ talk,” Pawlowski said, “but that’s exactly what we’re trying to do.”

That mindset takes on added importance this weekend against Mississippi State, a struggling team ripe to be overlooked.

The Bulldogs have been swept in their past two SEC series and lost two ugly midweek games heading into tonight’s 6:30 p.m. first pitch. Their Tuesday night loss to Jackson State was their first to the SWAC school since 1992, and Wednesday night’s 14-3 rout at the hands of Southern Miss was never close.

At 20-25, 5-16 in the SEC, the once-dominant Bulldogs would probably have to win the rest of their games to return to the SEC Tournament.

Pawlowski didn’t have to lay out all the adversity Mississippi State is currently facing to his team, which he considers “sharp” when it comes to following the goings-on in the league.

They already know, he said, and they know the Bulldogs are certainly capable of leaving Plainsman Park with a rebound series victory.

“This league is good and Mississippi State is a team that’s very dangerous in my mind,” Pawlowski said. “You look at this league, every weekend, you never know what’s going to happen. There’s too many good players, good teams.”

Auburn has been as good as any. Last week’s series victory at then-No. 7 Arkansas was the latest proof, as the Tigers rallied back from a Friday loss to win a tight game Saturday before their 13-2 rout Sunday.

“I think the kids understand that when you go on the road in that type of environment and you’re facing a team that was in first place and nationally ranked, it certainly gives us confidence to know that we can play with anybody in this league,” Pawlowski said. “Certainly if you can play with anybody in this league, you can play with anybody in this country.”

agribble@oanow.com | 737-2561

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