Following the 2011 Fall Practices for Auburn Baseball, I had the opportunity to sit down with head coach John Pawlowski to discuss the progress being made for the team, the upcoming season for the Auburn Tigers, and the competition within the Southeastern Conference (SEC) for baseball. This is Part 2 of the interview with Coach Pawlowski. Part 1 is available by clicking here.
Auburn vs. SEC
With more options for pitching, Auburn should compete better than last year. The Tigers should have more depth in the bullpen this upcoming season. Coach Pawlowski mentioned that the goals of each season don’t change, and remain the same each year: to go to the SEC Tournament, to go to post-season play, and ultimately to win a national championship. “Any team in this league can do that. It’s obvious, look what’s happened to this league in the last three years. South Carolina won it twice and LSU before that. It’s a quality league.” Florida was the runner up for last year’s national championship, and the Tigers’ have both Florida and South Carolina in the schedule for 2012.
Coach Pawlowski is definitely excited to watch his team play this season. He schedules tough teams to play because he likes the challenges it presents to the teams. Opening the season with Missouri, a future member of the SEC, and a team the Tigers’ saw briefly last year when they came to visit for the Auburn Tournament. Arizona is a top team in the Pac-12 and the Tigers’ have played them the last few years as well. While Pawlowski is excited to see outside competition, he’s more excited to see the team compete. “After a while, in the fall you play each other so many times, in the spring you play each other. You’re just looking forward to seeing somebody with a different uniform in the other dugout.”
Aspects Needing Most Improvement
One of the recurring aspects of the teams brought up has been the bullpen. Coach Pawlowski identified the development of the bullpen as one of the things the team has to continue doing. Defining roles and understanding those roles are important to each of the players working for their positions. Pawlowski wants to make sure we have the arms to provide support in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. Having multiple southpaws for starting pitchers and relief pitchers provides the options that Pawlowski was looking for, and was something Auburn has been lacking in previous years. With only one left-handed pitcher coming out of the bullpen in the past, it limited Auburn’s ability to take back control of the game. You can’t rely on one effective left-handed pitcher to take down one of the top SEC left-handed hitters when that pitcher has already pitched twice in the past two days. Roles and options should give the bullpen the confidence they need to attack when the time is needed.
Another aspect of improvement is the team’s newfound speed that came in with some of the new players. While some veterans provided speed, the amount of new players to add to that should definitely improve the base-running of the team. Auburn can definitely expect to see a lot more small ball this year, similar to last year, since the bat changes have affected the power-hitting game. The game has developed into more of a pitching and defensive game. “We knew that day was coming when the game was gonna evolve a little differently, and I think we addressed it by incorporating a little more speed guys. Sure, we’d love to have guys hit home runs and do that. Obviously, you take that. But it’s tougher to do now,” says Coach Pawlowski.
On the Celebrity Home Run Derby
This past October, prior to the Auburn Tigers’ Fall World Series, Plainsman Park played host to the Hudson Family Foundation charity event, the annual Celebrity Home Run Derby. Tim Hudson, former Auburn player and current Atlanta Braves starting pitcher, returns to Auburn during the off-season to promote his fundraising for charities. For the past few years, the annual Celebrity Home Run Derby at Auburn University had been a successful event, and has brought in legendary names such as Bo Jackson, Frank Sanders and Hal Baird. This year, the derby featured professional athletes such as current Braves catcher David Ross, current Braves infielder Wes Helms, seven-year MLB veteran Gabe Gross, and of course, Hudson himself. Whether they be former teammates of Tim Hudson or close personal friends, the Celebrity Home Run Derby would not forget some of the more recent local celebrities. Former Auburn players such as Brian Fletcher, Hunter Morris, and Kevin Patterson, all being drafted in the First Year Player Draft in the last two years, returned to Auburn to participate in the derby.
When asked what it meant for him to have all these former Auburn players return, Coach Pawlowski immediately related it back to his current team. “It’s very important for our program and very important for those guys to understand how important they are to what they did here and the direction that we’re trying to take the program,” says Pawlowski on returning players such as Hunter Morris, Brian Fletcher, and Kevin Patterson. Pawlowski talked about how great it was for these players, and all the former players, to want to come back and give back to the university. It shows that these players want to return to Auburn University long after their time here is finished. It also shows everyone that Auburn is more than just a stepping stone to get to the MLB Draft. It speaks to the current and future players about the Auburn family, the chemistry and team bonding needed for a successful season, and how important this team and these years will be for their career, whether it’s in baseball or their major. “Auburn’s not just a three- or four-year commitment, it’s a lifetime commitment and it’s great to have those guys back.”
The Auburn Tigers will face daunting competition early in the 2012 season, but the new players will prove their worth to the team while the veterans continue to develop and provide their experience. Their SEC schedule, which includes national champions South Carolina and runner-up Florida, is packed with talent like it is every year. The advanced depth in the bullpen and increased speed in the lineup will be useful in competition against the toughest teams in the country. The goal is to play through June, but all the players have only one date on their minds right now: February 17, 2012.
This was Part 2 of a 2 part interview with Coach Pawlowski. You can check out part 1 by clicking here.