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A&M at Auburn: Baseball Q&A with College and Magnolia

Ahead of this weekend's series which begins SEC play between the Texas Aggies and Auburn Tigers, we swapped Q&A's with College and Magnolia's baseball expert.

Courtesy: @Statboy203

After winning a pair of midweek games against UT-Pan American, the A&M Baseball team will hit the road to Auburn this weekend to kick off SEC play for 2014. We'll have your full preview coming tomorrow, but in advance of that we exchanged Q&A's with Kevin Ives, the baseball expert over at Auburn's SB Nation Blog College and Magnolia.

Kevin asked me 8 questions about the Aggies and this weekend's series, and you can find my answers to those over on College and Magnolia. In return, I asked 8 questions to Kevin about the Tigers and what he is expecting to see this weekend. A big thanks to Kevin for taking the time to answer all of these and give us a ton of great info about this year's Auburn team! Be sure to give him a followover on Twitter.

Good Bull Hunting: Auburn didn't get off to a great start in 2014, losing 5 of the first 9 games. What happened early on and what has changed in the 7 games since then?

College and Magnolia: Early on, I think it was an adjustment period. An adjustment period to Coach Sunny Golloway's style of play and his style of coaching. Golloway is vocal, he's boisterous, and he's diligent. That's something Auburn didn't have in their last two coaches. Golloway is fairly confident that his way is the way to win. He's stubborn and isn't afraid to confront players or call them out. He has a set of standards and is molding the team into that set. He's also pretty public with criticisms and blame. That's a major departure from Coach John Pawlowski. CJP was more behind in the scenes in his actions and reactions. Golloway is fairly blunt with the media and will call players out by name. There's an accountability now and that style was a bit tough to react and adjust to.

His playing style also took some work. It's not a grand departure from what Pawlowski was doing but it is more aggressive and lent itself to more mistakes early on while the players were learning to adjust. A big factor in that set of games was freshman play. Golloway shook things up and didn't let incumbents just take positions. He started 5 freshmen on opening day {Damon Haecker (2B), Keegan Thompson (1B), Anfernee Grier (RF), J.J. Shaffer (CF), and Daniel Robert (DH)} and two others (Connor Short at 3B and Blake Logan at Catcher) have all seen significant playing times and increased roles. These weren't JUCO guys. They were true Freshmen. That learning curve was (and still will be) a bit steep. Overall though, the biggest difference between now and then is that Golloway has relaxed a bit in his hitting style. He's no longer calling every play and forcing first pitch takes. He's letting Hitting Coach Greg Norton take more of a role and Golloway has backed off a bit and stopped forcing some things at the plate. The focus now has been driving the ball, avoiding flyouts, and using the speed to create extra base hits. So far, it's worked.

GBH: What do you see as the biggest strengths and weaknesses of this Auburn team?

C&M: Right now the biggest strength is starting pitching. This is probably the best and most consistent starting staff that Auburn has had in a while and it shows. There's a confidence in Dillon Ortman (3-1/2.49) and Keegan Thompson (3-0/.030) and faith that Michael O'Neal (0-2/3.92) will turn things around or excel in the bullpen in long relief. Even if O'Neal was to falter, Justin Camp (1-1/2.10) has pitched well in the midweeks and long toss innings and would be next in line. We have four guys who can go 6+ Innings and only give up less than 3 runs. I know there's no College equivalent of the Major League "Quality Start" but I think that comes pretty close.
I'm not ready to call the offense a strength just yet. Yes, things have been clicking recently but until Auburn shows consistency throughout an entire game and not go on coldspells then it remains a work in progress. We have two guys on hot streaks: Damek Tomscha (.444 avg in his last nine with 4 HRs) and Jordan Ebert (.600 over his past four games) but outside of that, we've got some Freshman struggles with Haecker and Grier on up and down swings.

There are two glaring weaknesses right now. Our defense has had a bad case of the yips over the past four games with the worst being Tuesday night with 5 errors against Kennesaw State. A lot of that has to do with some lineup shuffling (Connor Short having an increased role at 3B which is forcing Damek to 1B) and some brain farts (dropped flyballs) but those are excuses and they won't be valid anymore when SEC play rolls around. Auburn has to play sound defense to be successful. The other is our bullpen. The closer role and Terrance Dedrick has been shaky. The back end relief has been unreliable. Auburn has a handful of guys, like Jay Wade (0.00 ERA in 5 appearences) and Jacob Milliman who have been solid, but overall Auburn is still looking for answers in the bullpen.

GBH: What are your thoughts so far on Sunny Golloway in his first year at Auburn? Aggie fans are very familiar with him from his time at Oklahoma. What happened with the 3 players who left the team?

C&M: Honestly, I like him. However, I like him for reasons outside of baseball wins and losses. Auburn takes pride in our baseball program. We've produced All-Americans, Hall of Famers, and have a history that makes Auburn people smile. I think Golloway is what Auburn needed and will eventually get Auburn back to Steve Renfroe or even Hal Baird levels of play if given enough time. Let's be honest, Auburn was lucky to grab Golloway and he essentially fell into our lap based on how he was (or felt he was) being treated at Oklahoma and Auburn waking up and realizing just how far the baseball team had fallen.

Why do I like him? Because he made "non-baseball" fans at Auburn take notice and fill seats; he's made and has convinced our administration to make significant upgrades to the facilities; he's outspoken and emotional and he's blunt with the media (but also very media-savvy). Golloway sold the program and refocused the goals even before he coached a game. He's visible, he's available, and he's got just that right amount of brashness to make him successful. He's a total departure from what Auburn had in a Head Coach and if it wasn't working for all those years, then yeah, it was time to overcorrect and get a guy in who was the antithesis of our last two skippers.
He's going to take bumps, he's going to take losses, and he's going to alienate a group of Auburn fans. Still, to me, it will be for the greater good. Auburn will start winning again IF we don't pull the ripcord too early. Golloway has preached OMAHA from the start. That's a little bit of false hope and wishful thinking in my opinion. Still, I'd rather want a coach who sets goals at the top instead of accepting the status quo.

As for the 3 players who left the team? One (Patrick Savage) was a grad student, married with a kid, who was in a 3 way battle for any playing time and realized he couldn't and shouldn't give baseball his full attention. The biggest departure and the one who was ultimately "dismissed" was Hunter Kelley. You're going to get a lot of stories as to why he left. His story is that he was singled out and asked to leave and was being made the scapegoat for some bigger issues with team. The Auburn story is garbled in coach speak and backtalk and reasoning like "it's what was best for Auburn baseball." Basically, Golloway called him out in the media and placed some blame on him, Kelley blew up at Golloway, and Golloway cut him. The third, Chase Williamson, well I don't know. No one really does.
It's just a situation where Golloway wants to win now and anything or anyone who he sees as standing in that way will be gone. He wants to create his team and he'll do what it takes to do just that.

GBH: What about this A&M team concerns you coming into the series? And what about the Aggies gives you reason to be optimistic about the Tigers winning the series?

C&M: The Aggies experience and starting pitching worries me. If Auburn gets into a low-scoring game with both pitchers trading body blows then it would be up to the bullpens to provide the knockout. I don't see Auburn having that haymaker in our arsenal and continuing to keep A&M off the board. If the Aggies starters can keep Auburn in check for the opening innings then the Tiger starting pitching will feel a bit more pressure and is more likely to crack. Auburn has to score runs and score them early in order to win. If it comes down to a game where Auburn needs to score late? I'm worried.

Why am I optimistic about the series? Mainly because the game is in Auburn and the offense is clicking. I feel that the A&M bats can be held in check, especially since they play such a similar style to Auburn. The sacrifices will give Auburn some outs and give some confidence. The only difference is Auburn steals a ton more and is more aggressive on the basepaths. The lineup for Auburn is built so that we've essentially got two platoons to attack. 1 through 4 and 6 through 9, with slot 5 being the most crucial and "bridge" position. For the Mercer series, that was Senior CF Ryan Tella (.347/17h/5rbi). It doesn't have to be a power position for Auburn but it does have to be someone who can get on base consistently and bridge those two squads. Auburn hasn't really found that but it could come around soon. When it does, then Auburn is going to be really dangerous. Take Auburn's highest run output to date: (3/2/14) vs Presbyterian. Auburn scored 12 runs and the guy in the 5 hole? Damek Tomscha who went 3 for 4 with 4 RBIs.

GBH: Keegan Thompson is a true freshman and appears to be the highlight of the Auburn pitching staff so far this season. What can you tell us about him and do the Aggies have any chance of plating runs against him?

C&M: Thompson is dang good and doesn't play like a Freshman at all. Auburn really benefited from the changes to the MLB Draft. A year earlier? Thompson would have gone to the minors out of High School. With the changes, Keegan wasn't able to be offered as much and the Auburn opportunity was a better chance. As it stands, he's probably the most highly touted player that Auburn has had since Hunter Morris came to the Plains over of the Red Sox. The biggest change from Keegan's first start to his last two has been his confidence in pitching to contact. His K-Rate is going downwards but his ERA is also doing the same. There's a reason for that. Keegan is utilizing his arsenal better and he's pitching out of his mind. Everything builds off of his fastball. If he's locating then he's going to have a good game. He won't go High 90s but as long as his control is there, he can go to his outpitches with more confidence.

Can A&M plate runs? Possibly. However, if I was A&M, I'd be worried that the hype surrounding Thompson would get into Childress's head and the Aggie offense would go into turtle mode and sacrifice and bunt more than they should. When outs are at a premium, giving them up on you own is not really helping. The key to hitting against Thompson is patience. Work the count deep and get his pitch count up. It will be frustrating for the first few innings but if his fastball starts to rise then you will be able to tell that he is tiring and he'll hang a few pitches that can be raked for hits.

GBH: Damek Tomscha looks like the primary offensive weapon for you guys. How good is he? And who else in the lineup should A&M pitchers be concerned about?

C&M: Tomscha has been a surprise breakout so far and that might come from him being bench in a game earlier in the year. He's good and he's getting better and better. Auburn is platooning him more at 3B and its allowing Tomscha to free himself up, relax, and focus on hitting. Him and Jordan Ebert are the sparkplugs right now.
However, A&M should really be concerned about Anfernee Grier and Dan Glevenyak. Those two are Auburn's biggest base running threats and A&M doesn't seem like a team that can throw guys out. The main concern though, should be Blake Austin. Austin can be Auburn's best offensive weapon but he's been hitting into a bit of bad luck. If Austin can heat up and start to rake or even have the A&M series be his breakout? Auburn is going to be scary.

GBH: How do you see this series playing out?

C&M: To me, Friday night is the biggest game for Auburn. If Dillon Ortman can set the tone and pitch like he did against Mercer and Alabama A&M (and not Presbyterian) and the offense doesn't stumble, then the Tigers will win. A win Friday night relieves some of the pressure on the rest of the weekend and Auburn can play a bit looser. A lose and Auburn squeezes more on Saturday and could wind up in a two game hole.

I'm not betting against Auburn and the Tigers are playing their best brand of baseball. Golloway knows Childress and probably has some tricks up his sleeve for the series. All of those factors and I say Auburn takes 2 of 3.

GBH: What are your thoughts on bunting? This is the most important question, by far.

C&M: Not a big fan, but it is what it is. Auburn overcorrected to the new bats the last two seasons. For Auburn now and with our speed, a bunt is just as good as a hit. I think the value in it is underrated in the pros but overrated at the college level. Philosophically, I think it's a smart part of baseball when done correctly. However, it rarely is and it just leads to frustration in losses.

I won't fault Golloway and his style because Auburn is built like a team that needs to bunt more because of the lack of power and an abundance of speed. Bunts are like taking shots at the bar at closing time. They either set you up for something unforgettable and memorable later or they were a bad idea and you're about to puke your night away.