AU Softball: Tigers trying to ‘grind’ out strong SEC finish

The No. 25 Auburn softball team hosts No. 4 Georgia in a three-game series beginning Friday at 6 p.m. CT

The schedule, more than any other factor, has been unkind to Auburn in its recent SEC swoon.

First it brought the Tigers up against No. 5 Florida, the buzzsaw that outscored them 35-10 in a three-game sweep two weekends ago.

Then it brought No. 21 LSU to town for a doubleheader sweep of Auburn that began a six-game winning streak.

Auburn can still claim a spot — 25th — in some polls, but the fact is it hasn’t won a conference game in three weeks.

And the road’s not getting any easier for the Tigers (34-14, 11-11 SEC) with No. 4 Georgia (40-7, 14-6) and No. 18 Kentucky (35-11, 13-7) coming up the next two weeks.

“It’s been a huge step up in competition,” head coach Tina Deese said. “We have had letdowns in certain circumstances, bad innings and stuff like that, but I think overall we haven’t collapsed as a team or anything.”

The Tigers sprinted out to an 8-3 mark in conference play and seemed well on their way to posting their first winning season in the SEC in six years.

But they also did all of their damage against Arkansas, South Carolina and Ole Miss, teams with a combined .176 winning percentage in conference.

Since then, Auburn has won a series against Mississippi State, but dropped at least two games to Florida, LSU and No. 6 Tennessee.

The Tigers have to win out for any shot at the SEC West title, or at least finish strong to maintain their foothold in the top half of the division, behind LSU and No. 7 Alabama.

“It’s the time of year when we talk about the grind,” Deese said. “We can not shut down, we can not stick a fork into it just because we’re right there in the grind. We’re playing for pride. We’re playing for position.”

Georgia, which starts a three-game set with Auburn tonight at 6, is not the most forgiving team to meet in “the grind.”

The Bulldogs rank third in the SEC in batting average (.327) and home runs (69) and fourth in runs scored (330).

Deese described them as a lot like Florida — which hit 15 home runs in three games against Auburn — but even more aggressive at the plate.

That’s especially bad news with Jenee Loree — one of Auburn’s three top pitching options — still coming back from an injury that has shelved her the past four games.

“(The Bulldogs) are not waiting on the perfect pitch,” Deese said. “They’re going to take your best pitch — which could be three balls off the plate — and drive it somewhere, make what I call ‘chicken salad’ out of it.”

The Tigers pounded Mississippi Valley State in a doubleheader last weekend to get back on the winning track, but Deese said she didn’t know how much those victories would translate to Georgia and Kentucky.

“The grind” is a whole different level of play.

“I would love to see (my players) hungry to play ball, win, finish strong,” Deese said. “We’ve got to meet Georgia punch-for-punch. It’s going to be a fight.”

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