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 talks about last week's games in Hawai'i and looks ahead at this week's games against Panhandle State and the very important series against Fresno State. He also talks mental drain that the compressed schedule puts on student athletes.
bleedCrimson.net: Can you talk about the game against Hawai'i-Pacific?
Rocky Ward: We played under tough conditions. Their field was a natural grass field unlike the other eight games we played that were on the field turf material. They had rain and so it was pretty slick in a lot of spots. We kind of caught a bad break because Dixie State was supposed to go in there and play on the weekend as part of a series for them. Because of ATA Airlines going under, that's who Dixie was scheduled to travel with and they couldn't rebook fights. So their series was cancelled and instead of facing their [HPU] number six pitcher we faced their number one, number two and number three. They just took all of them and shared the game and they were pretty dadgum good. They had a left-hander that was in the low 90's with a good breaking ball. Then a right-hander came in that was a high 80's guy with a real good slider. I knew they had a pretty good club and I knew they had those two kids that really had good numbers. We did a good job against them. We got a home run out of [Geoff] Downing that was a key blow. Their shortstop had a tough game, he made three errors that led to a couple different runs. Again we couldn't close it out in the bullpen. Of course it was a game we really had to be careful who we were going to use because we were going to play four games in the next three games against Hawai'i in conference. Bottom line is they tied it in the ninth, we avoided losing it there, we came back with one in the tenth, held them in the bottom of the tenth and won a 6-5 game. It was a good baseball game under tough conditions and the kids did well.
bc.net: Can you talk a little bit overall about the Hawai'i series. How do you think your team did in that ballpark?
RW: Well, it's the alter ego go our park. It's probably one of the top five most difficult ballparks in the country to hit home runs in. They probably average only 10 to 15 home runs hit in that ballpark a year, and that's both teams.
bc.net: And you got three in this series.
RW: Yeah, we hit three so I thought we did all right in that regard. We had to change our game a little bit. We tried to. In game one, their guy Alexander, he's done well against everybody. We really made him work hard we just couldn't get the breakthrough basehit and dropped that one.
In game two I thought we just really played poorly defensively and didn't do much on the mound. We kinda gave away the game, we had a chance to win it and we let it get out of hand with the big six run inning in the fourth. A six run lead in that place is like 12. You kind of just double the scores. That's kinda the way I look at it. An 8-4 game is a 16-8 compared to our park. When we gave up the six, we made a couple defensive mistakes and then made a couple pitching mistakes. They got some breaks and dumped some balls in and stuff like that but once they got the momentum we couldn't stop it and that inning was the killer to the game. So we lose the first two in pretty good baseball games but you feel like you made the second one easy on them.
Then we came back on Saturday morning and finally got our power going. [Joe] Scaperotta hits a ball over the trees in right which is a big blast. [Chris] Auten hit one over the scoreboard which has only been done a few times. In fact I remember dad took his team in 1990 [Oklahoma State] to Hawai'i. A guy on that club named Jeromy Burnitz who played for 15 or so years in the major leagues. He was remembering that Burnitz hit two over the scoreboard and he thought those were two monster shots. Well Auten did the same thing. It was kinda funny because he'd mentioned it about an inning before.
[Franky] Busani really hit the ball hard in the series but didn't get much in the form of hits. He had about five line drives to right center and hard fly balls and all of them were caught. It's an easy park offensively when you have some fly ball power to get frustrated with because you hit the ball hard and the ball just goes out and hangs. Even line drives out in the gap, the ball hangs up in that high humidity, the wind generally blows in from left and occasionally from left to right. So you hit balls that are not just fly balls, they're hit hard, line drives and it still kinda stays up a little bit longer and gives outfielders time to make plays that normally you wouldn't expect them to get to.
We put together a good game offensive game in game three and win that one 9-3. We felt pretty good, Heath Goin was outstanding again. In fact all three of the first three starts were good. We had to move [Tyler] Sturdevant back because he came off the Reno weekend sore in his shoulder so we moved him back and gave him a couple more days of rest. Oliver Webster pitched game one and really pitched well.
So we had Sturdevant for game four and broke down defensively, made three errors in the game and never really got into it. We gave up an unearned run in the second and went down 2-0 and they kind of mixed their staff. They brought five different pitchers which can sometimes be a disadvantage to an offense because you just can't get settled in. Each at bat a guy is seeing a new pitcher. If they're quality guys like they have, then it's a pretty good advantage to their defensive side and we didn't handle it very well and the final score in that was 5-1. We just couldn't get any offensive continuity going.
Overall on the trip we didn't swing the bats very well. We had three or four players that had been really hot coming into the trip that just went dead cold. I had to scramble the lineup four or five different times just trying to get four or five hot players together. I kept getting a good at bat out of one kid and a bad one out of the next guy. We made a couple adjustments, moved Quade down the lineup who hadn't been playing real well. Of course as soon as I moved him down to the eight hole in day one he goes 3 for 4. It was one of those things where we just couldn't quite get three or four real quality at bats back to back. Somebody in the middle of an inning would give us a bad at bat so we struggled a little bit.
Reno and Hawai'i are probably the two most difficult places to play. Reno because you have the distractions of the city that's hard to overcome but also they have a pretty tough crowd you play under. Those people get into it and they get on you pretty good.
Then Hawai'i a lot of it comes down to the long travel and the fact that the field is so different form what we're used to playing on. You kind of feel like you have to go away from your game. In fact in the 9-3 game we won it with power but we sac-bunted successfully three times, Hit-and-run once, it wasn't successful as far as a base hit but we did move a runner up who eventually scored. We tried to do some of that stuff and I tried to do it in the first two games we just didn't get the leadoff runner on very often. In order to bunt, hit-and-run and those type of things you have to have the leadoff runner on in order for that type of game to work. We just didn't get the leadoff runner very often except for the third game.
Are we disappointed with the trip? Yeah, you're disappointed going 3-6 on any trip or any series of nine games but at the same time we did what we had to do, we won one game of each series plus one mid-week game. So at least you feel like as a ballclub you're stabilized. If you win three out of four on the road in this league, that's a big advantage, if you split then that's a good weekend and if you lose three out of four you do the bare minimum you need to survive.
It's kind of like La. Tech this weekend, they've been swept twice this season, once at home and then they got swept at Fresno and it's put them in a tough position. As a team that was picked to finish second in the league, they're sitting dead last at 2-12 because they have not been able to win that minimal one game in the series. Now 4-10 is not much better but it would put them a little bit better position to survive. This upcoming weekend they're playing San Jose. San Jose's been another club that's struggled. They opened up the season by beating Sacramento State three out of four at Sacrament and since that time they haven't won a series. I believe they split a series this weekend with Sacramento. Both those teams need to have a good series. I gotta think that La. Tech will somewhere along the line make a run to get moving. That series will tell you a little bit about where they're going to be. The good thing is we've already played San Jose, we still have La. Tech to play, we end the season with them at home.
They've got the conference tournament at Louisiana Tech and I've been involved twice with teams that were hosting the conference tournament that didn't qualify for that tournament. There's some additional pressure, if you don't have the type of year you expect to have like La. Tech has. They're already thinking about how embarrassing it might be if they don't qualify for their own tournament. It adds an awful lot of pressure for their kids. You gotta think this weekend is a do or die weekend for them. Either way, when you're looking at the rest of the league, you're really hoping that somebody wins the series, you don't really want a split. As far as I'm concerned I'd rather have San Jose beat them three out of four because we've already beaten them in a series and we don't have to play them again.
We've got a pretty good run coming. We've got Fresno in this weekend, it'll be an important series for us. Then we go on the road to Sacramento who's one of the hottest teams in the league. We've got the number one and two teams in the league the next three weekends. That'll tell us whether or not this ballclub is physically and mentally prepared to be able to compete in the middle to the top portion of the league where we want to be. We're not there right now but we're just on the outskirts looking in. I've just gotta convince my kids that even with going 2-6 this past couple weeks in the league, those are tough places to play on the road and that we did at least meet the absolute criteria of winning one out of each of the four game series. We may be out of the boat in the water but we're not drowned yet.
We're 5-7, we're a ballclub that's played poorly at times and great at times. We just have not been able to get together as much consistency as we'd like to get. The next couple of days against Panhandle State are a couple of games that we need to take care of business at home, get the winning feeling back and get ready to play as good as we can against Fresno. We have a little bit of the homefield advantage with them because they're very much oriented towards pitching and defense. That doesn't mean a whole bunch but it just means that they won't be as comfortable playing at our place as they are at some other places. They've got those four guys on the mound that are all really top-notch pitchers. But we've had some top-notch pitchers come into Las Cruces and leave with a little bit higher ERA. We're hopeful that we can get our offense together off of these nine games on the road with six here at home, kinda get moving again and get our confidence back. More than anything get guys like Leghorn and Marquez, they haven't hit very well. Quade's been so-so. Crouthamel has really struggled where he was real good early. When you go back and look at the statistics the last ten games, we've got five or six guys that are hitting at .200 or less where they hit over .300 and a couple of those kids were over .400 for the first ten games. You know it's there it's just a matter of getting their confidence back and getting them moving again.
bc.net: You talked about wanting to get your offense away from that momentum offense and towards being able to build innings. How do you think your kids did this past weekend?
RW: We're showing signs that we can do this a little bit more consistently. Offense statistically when people look at it, it's all about the basehit, it's all about hits and doubles and triples and home runs. All I'm trying to get our people to understand is if you go 0 for 4 in a day that you've at least done it with a battle. I've had kids that have gone 0 for 4 and struck out all four times yet impacted the game in a positive way. People ask "how is that possible?" There are days if a guy goes out and every strike out is a six or eight pitch battle with a pitcher then maybe you didn't succeed but if you saw 30 or 35 pitches which would be a third of how many the kid would be available to throw then those are pitches that make other hitters in the lineup better. That's what they need to understand. We still have too many first or second pitch pop-ups or ground balls, useless at-bats. They're easy outs for pitchers, they don't have to carry any stress or pressure in that at-bat. When we're still having too many strike outs in low pitch counts, too many three or four or five pitch strike outs. If you get behind in the count and you get to two strikes, your job is not necessarily at that point to get a basehit or double or homer. You're job is to make him work to get you out. If you have to really what we call "tighten the rhythm" and make yourself a little more vulnerable to the fastball where all you can do is foul it off, that's what guys are trained in this program to do. You get to two strikes, they throw the fastball, you're gonna just flick it out of the catcher's glove and what you're looking for is the pitcher to make mistake with a bad breaking ball or bad change up that you can still hit hard. We've still got some work to do with the club. We're starting to make some progress, it's an individual type thing, hitter by hitter. Stout is outstanding at getting in the count and fighting for every at bat. Scaperotta's been good at times and at times he's not. Auten still needs to be better. [Marcus] Quade needs to get better, he's got a real high strikeout number he's also though at the same time, leads the club in walks. With Marcus, he needs to be a little more aggressive, in particular in RBI situations and quit getting himself behind in the count so much trying to be overly selective. So, yes we're making progress. But that's probably the one thing that I'm talking about in the next week or so that we just have to get together. Every at bat has to be a battle with the pitcher. You just can't give away easy ones. That'll be really really important against the Fresno pitching staff.
They're really really good, maybe one of the best clubs in the country on the mound through the first five or six guys. They've got four outstanding starters and they've got one kid that's closed really well. There's a kid named [Brandon] Burke that they projected as a closer and when we were there a few weeks ago he was struggling terribly. It'll be important for us to make them work for every out. If we can get past their five or six guy into the bullpen, then those are kids that they're still good pitchers but those are the kids you've got a chance to beat. You've got to find a way to get the starter out of the game before the 7th inning before they can get to their closer. If you make the starter work, make him throw 90 to 100 pitches in the first five innings, whether or not you score one, or six, or none, if you can make them get to their middle relief, then those are guys you have a chance to put up big innings against. So those will be the goals going into the weekend against Fresno.
bc.net: Looking at the Fresno series, this being a team that you faced and beat earlier in the year, how much of a help is that game psychologically for your kids.
RW: I think that it's important but I don't think you can rely on it. It would be a mistake from a coaching viewpoint to let just the fact that we played them early in the year and beat them be the overriding motivation for the series. They were not playing anywhere near as well at the time as they are right now. They've historically been a ballclub that has started slow and finished strong. Clearly they're playing good baseball right now. I think in the back of the kids' minds it's important to them but we have to go do our work.
bc.net: The first game on Friday night is going to be another televised game, this will also be the first against a little bit higher quality opponent, how important is it for your team to be able to play against Fresno State on t.v.?
RW: I think it's important to us as a whole. I think the t.v. portion of it makes the game a little bit more important. It makes it more public, more people are aware of it. But, really the first game of the series is important whether it's on t.v. or not. We still don't know who we're going to face. Sheppers is their big stud, he's a projected first round draft choice, yet he has not been pitching the last three weekends on Friday night. He's been pitching on Saturday or Sunday. They have five guys that are starters and what they look like they're doing is rotating them through so they're going Friday, doubleheader Saturday, single Sunday then a single game on Tuesday and they're just staying in rotation. And sometimes they've had like most of us where they've had to play Tuesday and Wednesday and so I think they're just letting the rotation work it's way out. So I don't know who we're going to face on Friday. I know Sheppers threw this last week on Saturday. They've got a kid named Wilson and a kid named Miller. They've both been outstanding and then the kid that we beat there, Allison, will be in that rotation as well. We just don't know when they're going to come.
And we don't really know because we had to move Sturdevant back to the second game on Saturday because of the shoulder soreness and I won't know until tomorrow after I get an assessment from my trainer how he responded to that. Sturdevant was set up to be the Friday guy, he was the Friday guy and won the game against Reno in a very good pitching performance and had to be pushed back to Saturday to get the extra day of rest. So I'm not sure where we're going to be on the weekend series until I assess the health of my guys. I just know that it's probably likely that we'll keep Vendette and Goin on Saturday.
They play tomorrow against Cal-Poly so we'll see who they throw there and see whether or not they release in their press release who they're going to throw. But I also have to find out where we are with Sturdevant. If he came off of Saturday's start healthy then he may go Friday. If he's still a little sore when I talk to the trainer tomorrow then we may have to push him back to Sunday.
It's kind of one of the anomalies from this condensed baseball schedule. For years you were used to having a guy that threw Tuesday, a guy that threw Friday and a guys that threw Saturday and Sunday. To a point where guys were designated as Friday night starters or Saturday or Sunday guys. Now those terms are starting to be thrown out of the window.
bc.net: You're a little over halfway through the schedule, what kind of a physical toll has playing four to six games a week taken on the players? What have your observations been on the toll that it's taken on the kids?
RW: The observations are a little bit different than what I thought that they would be. Physically guys have done well. We really worked hard to get them into good physical condition. Guys have physically been good. Injuries are enhanced a little bit. We had Stout down for a little bit with a leg injury, he's completely healed from that. Hardt was down with a knee injury, he's completely healed from that. Scaperotta's still got a high quad pull, he's about 80% running ability. I may or may not play him Tuesday or Wednesday to see if we can get him healthy and back to 100%
What I've found is the mental part of the game has been more difficult to get guys mentally up to play. There have been three or four situations through the course of the season where the kids, it's not that they weren't motivated, they just had a hard time getting their head straight. I think the psychological part of this has been the the most difficult part to deal with. I noticed first after we came off the Fresno trip (six games in six days) and played at home against New Mexico. There was no energy in the dugout. Guys were mentally worn out. Physically they were fine, mentally they were just worn out and we just didn't play very well in that doubleheader against them. It surprised me that playing against New Mexico that guys couldn't find that mental energy that they needed to get. But I think what happens with athletes is you pick your spots. Especially with baseball. Major League baseball players talk about this all the time when you get good interviews with them and they're not giving you the standard media response. They'll talk about that, they'll talk about the 162 games, how much of a grind it is, how difficult the travel is and that in the course of a game you have to learn how to turn your motor down for a couple of innings in order to be able to turn it back up. I don't think college players aren't that mature as athletes to be able to turn it on and turn it off. That's been the biggest concern, to keep them mentally prepared for the next game. Make sure they understand that they have to conserve some emotional energy at times. They can't waste it all in the first part of the series, they can't waste it all in the first half of the doubleheader. I know that's hard to quantify, you can quantify physical fatigue but it's really hard to quantify mental fatigue. But we do know that's the biggest essence of the doubleheader, it's not just physical but how long can you stay mentally hooked up and prepared for the next play and the next at bat. Obviously that was a concern before the season started because we've played plenty of doubleheaders. This mental preparation has just been more difficult to get the kids mentally prepared on a day to day basis. That's why I think when you look at it, look at the league, everybody is plus or minus a few games from .500. I don't think that's random. I think that's part of this. I think if you look at a lot of the leagues you'll see a lot of guys grouped in the middle. I think that's part of it, I think it brings the days where the less talented team has mental energy to go play a little bit harder. These are issues that we continue to discus with guys, how to conserve some energy, how to play a little bit more consistently, not so much on highs or lows. You've got to really eliminate those as much as you can. It's always been somewhat that way in baseball but I think it's been enhanced by the shortened schedule.