bleedCrimson.net will be conducting weekly interviews with Aggie baseball head coach Rocky Ward throughout the 2008 season as the Aggies open their third season in the WAC. This week Coach Ward recaps the New Mexico doubleheader last week and the conference series win over San Jose State, looks ahead at this week's games and talks about Franky Busani being named WAC Hitter of the Week.
bleedCrimson.net: Can you talk about Franky Busani's WAC Hitter of the Week award?
Rocky Ward: Franky was a kid that is a big right-handed hitting outfielder. He didn't play real good defense for us early in the year and didn't swing the bat real well so he didn't get as much playing time. He's worked his tail off as a defender. We had a chance to get him a start against New Mexico on Wednesday, he swung the bat well and played good defense. He's just one of those kids that's worked his way back to the top. Sometimes with players, you end up with a better player in the long run if they struggle a little bit at this level and kind of get a little more of an appreciation of what you have to do in practice to maintain a high level of play.
The end result of his work is that he had a great weekend against San Jose State, in three starts he had a couple doubles, a couple home runs and all of which were really very meaningful hits at the time. Three of the four, the doubles and one of the home runs were nail in the coffin type hits. They solidified the wins in all of those cases. He's well deserving, it's surprising a little bit that he got it, Nevada swung the bat great this weekend against La. Tech in a four game sweep at home this weekend. As coaches we don't get a chance to see what the other kids did. We turn in our kid for the week and the league office chooses from there. He was well deserving and I'm happy that he got it.
bc.net: You talked about his defense in the series against San Jose State, he was one of the few guys who didn't have an error on the weekend.
RW: Yeah and that was kind of hard to find over the last five or six games. We've struggled with our defensive game. It cost us a game against San Jose State and New Mexico. It could have very well been a 5-1 week instead of a 3-3 week had we played a little bit better defense.
The same thing applies, you go through stretches where you don't play very well in certain phases of the game. The week that we spent in Fresno, because you weren't able to take ground balls in the field, you weren't able to take batting practice on the field just with the simple fact that so many games were being played in such a short period of time, there wasn't much time to practice. We got a good practice in today, we got to swing the bat a lot live, and we got to get some defensive work done and rebuild some guys. A lot of the errors we had came out of the middle infielders in Marquez and Stout who had been real good defenders up until this weekend. We're not going to be a great defensive ballclub, we're going to make some errors. The real key thing is you have to learn from the pitching and defenders to play through those things and we're starting to do that. Once you learn to play through some mistakes and learn that you can survive them, I think kids relax and start playing the game again and then the errors you're worried about go away.
bc.net: Can you talk about last week's doubleheader against New Mexico. How much did fatigue affect the series, coming off six games in six days and then only having a couple days off before you played those games?
RW: It impacted the series alot more on the offensive side because we didn't swing the bats very well at the end of the Fresno trip and then we didn't swing the bats well against them. And then we started this phase where we didn't play good defense, we made nine errors in those two games. You lose 12-3 in the first game where we didn't pitch well and they got to play on the front side the whole game and we just couldn't get anything going with the bat. Then they lead us 8-0 giving up seven unearned but we came back and scored six late, had the winning run at the plate as a matter of fact, we made them bring the closer. We didn't get the final basehit but our offense got up and moving. So you're disappointed in the doubleheader because we didn't swing the bats well and we didn't play very good defense. But what was quietly happening was our pitching was pretty solid. We pitched at a 3.74 ERA for the six games.
Again it was lost a little bit in the fact that we had 26 errors on the week and seven of them came out of Stout at shortstop who had made only a couple previous to that. Overall you're dealing with all the different phases of the game but when you look up, Williamson's had two real quality outings. His ERA on the week is 0.93 and he gets the loss on the mound against New Mexico when we gave up all those unearned runs. He gave up nine runs on the week but only one of those was earned. Sturdevant pitched outstandingly, Vendette pitched outstandingly as well, all those guys pitched under a 2.50 ERA as well as Goin's outing where he goes seven inning and gives up one unearned run. On the week we gave up 46 runs in six games and only 22 of those were earned. I don't think I'll see that again for a while, I hope not.
Off of the New Mexico doubleheader you're disappointed because we didn't give them very good games. We kind of handed away a couple because we couldn't hit in the first game and made some defensive mistakes that allowed them to extend the lead and then game two the same thing, we didn't hit until late. To bounce back off that and play pretty solid baseball against San Jose and in particular we pitched outstandingly. We give away the one game where we make seven errors, the extra inning game, that's what's nuts, this is a ballclub that made seven errors and could have and should have still won. When we get into the next five or six games, if you play reasonably good defense, you don't have to be the best in the league, just not the worst, and continue the progress with what we've done with the pitching staff. The offense is going to be solid. A lot what happened to our offense is our pitching wasn't very good at times in Fresno and we had a lot of at bats with pressure on them. A lot of the at bats seemed like they were worth five because we felt like we had to go score 12 or 13 to win. That feeling has kind of gone away and we feel like we've got guys who are going to the mound that give us a chance to win and we know that the defense will get shored up.
The very first team to win a conference championship in school history and to go to the very first regional in 2002, we made over 100 errors in our infield. This club is a lot like them, they got better as the year went on and they learned to play around their defensive mistakes.
bc.net: Can you talk about the San Jose State series? You open up winning the first game 7-6 with five errors.
RW: It was one of those games that we really kind of controlled all the way out, we just kept giving them chances to stay in it. We didn't swing the bat terribly well in that game, their guy did a pretty good job. We had some timely hits and did a pretty good job overall with the game. But we let them get back in it with the defensive mistakes. We trailed early in the game 4-1 but we stuck with it and got the game tied at 4 in the fourth and had made some mistakes and given up three unearned runs to that point. Then we were able to get the three spot in the bottom of the fifth to extend it, then we got a good relief performance out of Smith and Nyquist. They went three innings and gave up one unearned run and that's it. That was a game that we trailed and then got the lead and then once we got the lead they didn't challenge much and we played good defense later in the game. Most of the defensive errors were early.
bc.net: Then in the second game you got a very good pitching performance out of Heath Goin, his second solid outing in a row and you win 12-1.
RW: The first game against San Jose stopped a four game losing streak. We didn't play great baseball but we won. It gave us some momentum into game two. We give up an unearned run in the first inning but we followed that up with a four spot in the bottom of the inning and then six runs in the second and you're up 10-1 and you're blowing them up. San Jose is a hit and run, steal, bunt type ballclub, they're not a real powerful offense, they're not used to coming from behind and Heath kind of put it on cruise control and did a good job. The real big deal is the Peterson kid that pitched for them, had the best numbers. He had an ERA under three and we went out and put seven runs on him on five hits, three walks in an inning and two-thirds. We did what I thought we'd do against left-handed pitchers. I think we really have some quality right-handed hitters that will show their power a little more against left-handers and we did that in game two. It was a good solid game and we got to front run a little bit. It was the type of game that we needed, it was a game we lead early and could kind of relax and play and it ended in seven innings with the ten run rule which saved us a little bit of pitching. It got some kids off the yard and got a chance to feel like it wasn't one of those ten hour double-header days.
bc.net: Then the third game, one probably feel like you should have won.
RW: It was a crazy game, disappointing game but sometimes these types of games wake you up a little bit and make you work a little bit harder. The key to the whole thing is game four. We came out and they gave us four unearned runs in the first and it was kind of a normal game, they scored in the third and fourth innings three runs and four runs to go up 7-4 and then the bottom of the sixth the floodgates opened and we had a great offensive inning where we actually did it all with two outs. Hart flies out to the first baseman on a pop up and Marquez grounds out to third then Busani singles, Leghorn singles, Stout singles, Quade singles then they walk Scaperotta with bases loaded and Auten doubles to take the lead, Crouthamel singles and then they walk Hart and then Marquez singles and then Busani doubles in the gap to empty the bases and it was the final big hit that gave us some breathing room. Then Busani homered a little later in the game after they had scored two in the top of the eighth, he homered in the bottom of the eighth to get those runs back and make pitching in the top of the ninth easy to do. Which Nyquist did, he came in threw an inning, struck out a guy, gave up no hits and we get the series win out of it.
bc.net: Can you talk about being able to start off your conference season with a series win and not starting out in the hole right away?
RW: It's important. With the fact that we hadn't played real well going into it was also important. But to start the league on a positive note. The goals at the beginning of the year every year is to win every game and at the very least win enough that your power rating puts you in the Top 50 in the country, then that allows you to get an at-large bid at the end of the year. Now that's not just about the individual team to be able to reach those goals. It has a lot to do with what the teams in your league do in non-conference. It hasn't been a great non-conference league year, it's better than it was a year ago but the power ratings of our teams are anywhere from 70 to 130. What you're hoping your league can do in it's non-conference games is set itself up so the power ratings are between 30 and 60 so then the games you play against each other, you're buying each others' power points so to speak. It puts you into a little bit of a different bracket. Right now if you look at the WAC, the WAC is going to be, as of today, a one-bid league. That means that now the non-conference games aren't terribly important except to play well and keep momentum but the conference games and what you do in league are important. The seeding getting into the tournament and your seeding in the tournament is going to be the most important fact from the standing of winning the tournament and going to the regional. To start off the way that we started off is really important to us. The last two years in the WAC we've won six games, we've been 6-18. We're already halfway to that number. That's an important psychological thing for us. Is it real meaningful in the long run? Heck no it's not. What you're trying to do is put yourself in the top half of the league and be within sight of winning a conference regular season title going into your last two weekends, that's what your goals are. By winning three out of four to open the season, those goals are still in sight. Regardless of what the numbers are right now, regardless of what the record is, none of that makes any difference. It's a matter of taking each conference series as they come and putting yourself in position. If you look at the WAC standings we're second behind Nevada who's 4-0. Each week you play, you're trying to keep yourself in that 1,2,3, 4 range and within sight of the leader if you're not the leader. If we're able to maintain that, we'll end up reaching the goals we expected to reach when we started the year.
This next seven games are important for maintaining momentum, I wish we were playing in conference. We need to play well in the next seven and get ready for a really important series on the road with Nevada at Nevada and Hawai'i at Hawai'i. Both teams are two of the tougher places to play at home. I like Nevada because Nevada's ballpark fits my ballclub.
bc.net: Can you talk a little bit about the two games against New Mexico this week?
RW: We have a something to prove. Whether we win or lose, these games won't probably impact whether we play in the regionals or win a conference championship. That's the disappointment with the setup. It's a lot more like that in baseball than in any other sport. Football it's a big game, basketball it's a big game. Baseball they're just four games out of 56. Last week's games looking back to them weren't terribly important. Would you have liked to have held your homefield advantage? Yes. You would have. What's important for the games the next couple days is to maintain the momentum we've gained with the series against San Jose. We've always played reasonably well at Isotopes Park. It's a ballpark that fits my ball club pretty well. It's a nice environment and I think we'll play well. If we go up there and win two I may look back it in a month from now and say those were really the key wins of the season that really got us up and going but I can't let them get their sight off what the real goal is and that is to play great baseball in conference play and win yourself into a regional. I've always let the natural rivalry and emotion that comes out of the rivalry to provide that motivation. I think our kids feel like they were embarrassed with how they played last week at home. We'd like to go up there and play well.
bc.net: Can you talk about this weekend's series with Texas-Pan American?
RW: I know they haven't had a real good year to this point. Texas-Pan American's always had a real solid ballclub. They're one of those independent schools in college baseball that doesn't have a league so they've gotta go play whoever will play them and in a lot of cases they play real difficult schedules compared to a lot of guys.
Their record may not be indicative of how good they are. Their numbers seem to be reasonable. They seem to have a decent offensive ballclub. The only disappointment I have is we wanted to play a four game series with them.