It's time for a change. In case you missed it last week, this is exactly how I started the recap of the Aggies' series win - but Sunday loss - against Louisiana Tech. That time, though, I was talking about the A&M coaching staff. While my position on that has remained entirely unchanged, I am actually referring to a different change this time. This one comes on the heels of dropping the first SEC series of the season at Auburn, but salvaging a win on Sunday in order to avoid a sweep.
It's time to change up the rotation. Grayson Long has allowed just a single run in 5 starts now, which spans 34 innings of work. All 5 of those starts have been on Sundays, and the Aggies have won 3 of those 5 starts. The 2 Sunday losses came despite Long's efforts, with A&M scoring 1 combined run in those games against Fresno State and Louisiana Tech. Long is allowing opponents to hit for a paltry average of .183, and 3 of his 5 appearances have been shutouts. Sure, it could be a big luxury to have someone like that going for you on Sunday, but it doesn't matter nearly as much if you can't get wins on Friday or Saturday.
Parker Ray, meanwhile, has yet to really get on track so far in 2014. Ray has competed admirably on the mound despite not having his best stuff, but now that we're into conference play that probably isn't going to be enough to get your team a win. Ray has the second highest ERA on the entire pitching staff at 4.44, is allowing opponents to hit for an average of .300, and is tied for the most walks on the team (11) as well. Even Daniel Mengden, who is supposed to be the ace of the staff, hasn't really found the groove just yet this season. Mengden is tied with Ray for the most walks on the team, and his ERA is currently north of 3 as well.
Tyler Stubblefield has pitched very well in the midweek games, allowing just 3 earned runs in over 27 innings of work (4 starts). However, Stubblefield came in to relieve Ray on Saturday and did allow 2 earned runs on 4 hits in less than 2 innings of work. That appearance may have put a halt on a drastic rotation change for now, and there is certainly some logic behind wanting to have a solid starter for some important midweek games on the schedule against the likes of Sam Houston State and Rice.
I don't think I expect Coach Childress to shake up the rotation just yet, but if it were up to me I'd start either Mengden or Long on Friday, whichever one of those you don't go with on Saturday, and either Ray or Stubblefield on Sunday. As of right now, I'd still stick with Mengden on Friday, pitch Long on Saturday, and roll with Ray on Sunday.
As mentioned, the Aggies did in fact lose the opening series of SEC play on the road against Auburn. The Tigers benefited from a complete-game shutout by Friday starter Dillon Overton, and rode the performance of freshman standout Keegan Thompson on the mound on Saturday. The Aggies, though, were able to avoid total disaster by picking up a win on Sunday thanks to another tremendous start from Grayson Long. Let's look at how each game played out.
Friday: Texas A&M 0, Auburn 4
The Aggies started the series exactly the opposite of how they would have liked, allowing Auburn's starting pitcher Dillon Ortman to toss a complete-game shutout in a 4-0 Tigers win. We mentioned in the preview that A&M should try to make Auburn's starters work deep into counts to get to the weaker Tigers' bullpen, but obviously that did not happen in this game. Daniel Mengden got off to a very shaky start on the mound, and the damage could have honestly been worse than the 3 runs in the first two innings. A pair of singles sandwiched by a fly out started the first, and a walk loaded the bases. A sacrifice fly brought home Auburn's first run, and an RBI single to RF scored their second. In the 2nd inning, Mengden hit a batter with 1 out and then allowed consecutive singles to again load the bases. An error on Logan Taylor at SS resulted in another run for the Tigers, but Mengden got a big strikeout and then Taylor atoned for his error with a great play in shallow left to stop the bleeding.
On the other side of things, it was complete cruise control for Ortman on the mound for Auburn. Through the first 5 innings, the only A&M baserunner came on a 2-out single by Cole Lankford in the 1st inning. Nick Banks led off the 6th inning with a single, but Krey Bratsen popped out and, after Banks stole 2nd, Patrick McLendon and J.B. Moss both grounded out to strand him at 2nd. For some reason or another, Coach Childress elected to insert Blake Allemand (hitting under .200) as a defensive replacement for Patrick McLendon (the team's leading hitter) in the 7th, and Allemand came up with 2 runners on and 2 outs in the 8th and promptly struck out swinging. A&M got 2 runners on base to begin the 9th inning, but a fielder's choice followed by a double play sealed the complete game for Ortman.
Saturday, Gm1: Texas A&M 2, Auburn 5
The first game of the Saturday doubleheader again featured Auburn jumping out of the gates to an early lead. The Aggies started the game by going down in order, with a pair of strikeouts and a ground out, and the Tigers happily jumped on A&M starter Parker Ray. A 1-out single was followed by an RBI double from Auburn's leading hitter Damek Tomscha. Ray got a strikeout but then hit a batter and allowed an RBI single to make it a 2-0 Tigers lead. No runs would cross the plate for either team in the next 3 innings, although the Tigers got 4 baserunners in that time compared to just 1 for the Aggies.
A&M drew level in the top of the 5th by scoring just the 2nd and 3rd earned runs that Auburn starter Keegan Thompson had allowed all season. Logan Nottebrok and Mitchell Nau singled to start things, and a fielder's choice followed by a walk loaded the bases. Jace Statum was then hit by a pitch, and Jonathan Moroney picked up a pinch-hit sacrifice fly. Unfortunately, the Tigers answered right back in the bottom half of the 5th and would never trail again in this game. A pair of 2-out singles brought the end of Parker Ray's afternoon, with Tyler Stubblefield coming on in relief and allowing a pinch-hit RBI single to make it 3-2 Auburn. The Tigers would plate 2 insurance runs in the 7th courtesy of a 2-run single with the bases loaded off A&M reliever Andrew Vinson. A&M managed just 1 baserunner - Jace Statum via a single - through the final 4 frames of this one.
Saturday, Gm2: Texas A&M 9, Auburn 0
The second game of the doubleheader came very close to starting much the way the first 2 games in the series did. A&M started the game with a 1-out walk and promptly followed that by grounding into a double play. Auburn led off their half of the first with a pair of 1-out singles, but fortunately the lead runner was thrown out at 3rd by Moroney. A third single in the frame put 2 runners on base, but Grayson Long escaped by inducing a ground out to 1st. After that, Long essentially put things on cruise control by retiring the next 10 Auburn hitters and allowing the Aggies to actually put a few runs on the scoreboard. Long finished the game with 8 innings pitched - a career-high for the sophomore - and scattered 7 hits to allow no runs with 7 strikeouts and a walk.
After 2 frustrating days from a hitting standpoint, the Aggies finally managed to string together some hits and plate runs. I suppose it's worth noting that 6 bunts - 5 of them of the sacrifice variety - contributed to A&M putting 9 runs on the scoreboard. Seeing as this was the only game of the series in which the Aggies scored more than 2 runs, it's probably safe to say that we're going to continue to see plenty of that moving forward. Catcher Troy Stein led the Aggies offensively with 4 hits - a career-high for Troy - along with 3 RBI and a run. Logan Taylor and Cole Lankford each had 2-hit days and both scored a pair of runs as well.
By the time it was all said and done, the Aggies ultimately did exactly what we figured they would do if they were able to get to the Auburn bullpen early in a game. A&M scored 2 runs in the 6th, 2 in the 7th, and 3 in the 9th to finish with a 9-0 shutout victory and avoid the sweep.
[Not so much, but a little bit] Fun With Stats
4 - Number of times A&M has been shutout in 2014
3 - Number of times A&M was shutout through all of 2013
3 - Extra-base hits by A&M against Auburn (all on Sunday)
0.26 - Grayson Long's ERA after 5 starts
2.29 - combined ERA of all A&M pitchers
Coming Up Next
Tuesday (3/18) vs Columbia, 6:35pm
A&M begins a 5-game homestand at Olsen Field tomorrow against Columbia. The Lions come to College Station with a record of 5-7 on the season, and they dropped 3 out of 4 games at UTSA this past weekend. Columbia has played two other 4-game series - against South Florida and Kennesaw State - and split both of them. The Lions own a team batting average of .252 and their combined team ERA is 4.96. I don't have much of a guess as to who they'll start on the mound since they've yet to play a midweek game.
Friday - Sunday (3/21 - 3/23) vs Florida
The Aggies will then welcome the Florida Gators to Olsen Field for the first home SEC series of 2014. The good news for A&M fans is that the Gators have been just about as offensively challenged as the Aggies have so far this season. Florida's record sits at 13-7, although they did win their first conference series of the year last weekend against Arkansas. They lost a series at Miami early in the season, but did avoid being swept, and also dropped a pair of games against Illinois. The Gators are hitting .259 ahead of a midweek matchup with Florida State and they have a team ERA of 3.13. Friday starter Logan Shore has pitched quite well so far this season, allowing just 2 earned runs in 26.1 innings of work, and closer Ryan Harris has given up just 1 earned run in 12.1 innings and picked up 3 saves. We'll have the full breakdown of the Gators later this week, but it's going to be very interesting to keep an eye on whether there is a shakeup to the A&M pitching rotation.