AUBURN, Ala. — This weekend, Auburn softball will start its quest for a third consecutive trip to the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City. The paths are similar — the Tigers are a regional host and, if they win there, will be a Super Regional series host.
That’s where most of the similarities begin and end with the 2017 Auburn squad and the last two that went the distance under coach Clint Myers.
Auburn will be outside the top four seeds for the first time in this three-year stretch. It also will enter the NCAA Tournament already with double-digit losses — something it didn’t have in 2015 and 2016. The 2017 team didn’t win an SEC Tournament title, either.
The biggest contrasts, though, come at the plate. If Auburn softball makes it to Oklahoma City again in 2017, it’ll do so with a different style.
Quite different at the plate
In 2015 and 2016, Auburn was one of college softball’s most feared offenses. In 2017, the Tigers are closer to average in the batter’s box. After finishing 15th and 29th nationally in batting average, Auburn sits at 159th heading into regional play.
Across the board statistically, Auburn’s offense is below the heights it experienced in its first two trips to the Women’s College World Series.
Auburn averages almost 2.5 fewer runs per game than it did in 2016. It’s striking out more, walking slightly less and slugging at a considerably smaller clip.
How did that happen? Most of it has to do with the turnover Auburn had in its starting lineup.
The Tigers lost three of their top four batters from a season ago — Emily Carosone, Tiffany Howard and Jade Rhodes — to graduation. They replaced those three starters with a combination of five underclassmen.
The three sophomores in that replacement group started a combined 11 games in 2016. Each position is batting at least 100 points under the averages set by those seniors. The Tigers replaced several of the most decorated players in program history with a rotating cast — outside of Kendall Veach at first base — of inexperience.
“Over half of our kids are freshmen and sophomores,” Myers said earlier this week. “We’ve got a couple of them out there any given day. If we throw a pitcher out there that’s a freshman, we’ve got three possibly.”
|C||Wallace (.281)||Wallace (.287)||Wallace (.348)|
|1B||Rhodes (.284)||Rhodes (.338)||Veach (.228)|
|2B||Carosone (.438)||Carosone (.399)||McCrackin (.217)|
|SS||Fagan (.347)||Jordan (.228)||Fagan (.307)|
|3B||Cooper (.391)||Cooper (.422)||Cooper (.295)|
|LF||Howard (.415)||Howard (.390)||Podany (.212)|
|CF||Estell (.367)||Draper (.369)||Draper (.341)|
|RF||Melero (.313)||Gipson (.239)||Rivera (.380)|
|DP||Abbott (.270)||Shea (.225)||Shea (.238)|
The returning players, on the other hand, balance themselves out for the most part in terms of batting average. Catcher Carlee Wallace raised her average by 61 points, and shortstop Haley Fagan’s return from injury added 79 points to what Whitney Jordan provided in her absence last season.
Then there’s freshman right fielder Alyssa Rivera, who leads the team in batting average. Although she hasn’t started all season, her offensive production is well ahead of what Madi Gipson had at the spot in 2016.
Put Wallace and Fagan’s numbers together, and they added 140 points in batting average to the offense. That almost makes up for the downturns from third baseman Kasey Cooper (down 127 points) and center fielder Victoria Draper (down 25 points).
It always was going to be difficult for Cooper, the defending SEC Player of the Year, to match her fantastic numbers from 2016. She admitted to trying too hard at the plate during colder spells in the season.
Without Carosone, Howard and Rhodes, Cooper didn’t have as much protection in the Auburn lineup. Opposing pitchers could be more selective with how they approached Cooper’s at-bats. Opponents weren’t forced to pitch to her as directly as they would with runners on base and with better batters around her.
And some of the downturn, as Wallace noted earlier this week, can just come down to the nature of softball.
“Sometimes the game is going to be good to you, and sometimes you’re going to be like, ‘Are you kidding me? Do I even know how to swing a bat?’ ” Wallace said. “Sometimes I feel like I can go up there and go hit standing on my head and still hit the ball over the fence.
“I would attribute it just to that there’s nothing that our staff is doing wrong; there’s nothing the team is doing wrong. I just think it’s the game, and you’ve got to live with it, the good and the bad, and hang with it.”
Making up for it elsewhere
Even with the diminished offensive production in 2017, Auburn is a strong contender to make it to the Women’s College World Series.
The Tigers can chalk that up to pitching and defense. The smaller starting staff of Kaylee Carlson and Makayla Martin — both with extensive postseason experience — improved their games in 2017. The team also found a reliable third option in freshman Ashlee Swindle, with senior Jenna Abbott providing extra firepower out of the bullpen.
Auburn softball’s ERA is almost 2 runs better than what it was in 2015, and pitching improved in every major category. The biggest difference came in walks, as the Tigers gave away fewer free passes in the 2017 regular season.
Even though Auburn averages fewer than 4 strikeouts per game, the pitch-to-contact strategy works because of its defense.
Auburn turns more double plays than any other team in college softball by a solid margin. While Veach hasn’t been as consistent of a batter as Rhodes, she played excellent defense. The same goes for Casey McCrackin at second base and the diving catch-happy Rivera in right field.
With Fagan and Cooper, two strong defensive players, holding things down on the left side of the field, Auburn’s pitching staff has a huge weapon behind it.
So while it’s averaging 2 fewer runs per game on offense, Auburn softball can make up for it by stifling opponents when they come to the plate.
“It is a team that has learned a different hero could emerge at any time,” Myers said. “They don’t quit. They go up there battling. Somebody, someway, somehow figures out just enough runs to win. It’s hard on an old man’s ticker, but it is also a great characteristic.”
It’s a different formula than what Auburn used to success in 2015 and 2016. But the Tigers aren’t worried about style points if it can get them back to Oklahoma City.
“From here on out, the win doesn’t have to be pretty,” Wallace said. “We just have to have a ‘W’ next to our name, period. So I don’t care if we win it 1-0 or we have to walk it off against someone we shouldn’t, a win’s a win at this point.”