bleedCrimson.net Weekly Coach Ward Interview :: 05/11/09

bleedCrimson.net will be conducting weekly in season interviews with Aggie head baseball coach Rocky Ward as the Aggies take aim at a conference championship and a trip to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003. This week Coach Ward talks about the weekend against San Jose State, the regular season finale against Louisiana Tech and the conference tournament moving to Mesa, AZ in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

bleedCrimson.net: A tough weekend against San Jose State but you were able to manage a win on Sunday and generate some positive momentum heading into the final weekend against Louisiana Tech, obviously a very important series.
Rocky Ward: Yeah, we didn't start off very good. We got hammered the first three games. San Jose is good. They're the best team in the league not just in how they played but athlete for athlete, the pitching is really good, they're outstanding defensively. In last week's interview I thought we were pretty balanced head to head, they had some big advantages and we had some big advantages. But what they did is they came in and used our game against us. We hit three home runs on the weekend and they hit 11. They were able to get offensive momentum and we just had a really hard time stopping them. I looked at the stats after three games and not only were they hitting .500 against us but they were hitting .586 with runners in scoring position. That's just amazing. But yeah, it was important that we got the Sunday game. We came out and got a good performance out of [Sebastien] Vendette. We actually put that one in jeopardy with two big defensive mistakes. They scored a run when we threw the ball to the wrong base and could have kept the double play in effect but didn't and they scored on an infield ground ball that shouldn't have happened. Probably should have been a double play instead of a run scored and so we didn't execute very well defensively. But Sebastien pitched well enough and we went out and scored some runs and did okay.

The weekend was disappointing just because of how well they handled us. We did well against their pitching staff, we really did. Max Peterson wasn't very good on the first day, he just got a big lead and my offense got a little bit frustrated late in the game. When you make a little run at them and then all of the sudden you give up another four or five spot. To be honest with you, in the big picture it probably wasn't a terrible thing to happen because it hadn't happened to us yet. We hadn't really been hammered like that. Not necessarily lose three in a row but we were beat handily a couple times. I think it woke a couple guys up. The problem was by the time we woke up we couldn't stop the momentum. You look up and you've lost three but guys stabilized, came back Sunday, played the game hard. Played a good baseball game from the mound and as an offensive club. We had a couple big home runs late in the game with Aguirre's home run to tie it and Sodders' to go ahead. The game established some momentum and kind of got things stabilized for us going into La. Tech.

If you look at the league standings again San Jose's got 11 wins, Fresno and Sacramento have eight. There's only three wins between top and bottom. Everybody's in the middle. It's going to be another interesting WAC weekend to see how this thing splits out. I think San Jose's the only team to be guaranteed a spot in the tournament [Ed. Note: San Jose, Hawai'i, Nevada and La. Tech are all in the tournament heading into the final weekend] and nobody's played themselves out. Anybody can win their way into the tournament still. We're sitting at fourth and we know if we win two games this weekend we'll stay ahead of Hawai'i (who has 11 wins) since they've finished. They'd be at 11-12 and we'd be at 12-12. It would lock in at least a four seed I think. There's still lots of different scenarios to look at. Fresno plays Sacramento, there's still a possibility if one of them sweeps the other one then 12's not safe, they could bypass us. But at the same time you're sitting two games back [of first place], San Jose plays Nevada and I think just looking at some scenarios, if we swept at La. Tech we'd go to 14-10, that may still win us the conference title. Unless San Jose or Nevada sweeps. There's lots of different scenarios for seedings.

bc.net: We've talked about some of the lessons that the team was able to learn from a weekend like they just had against San Jose State. How do you approach the first three games of the series with the team, obviously it's better that it happened now than in a couple weeks from now when you're in Hawai'i.
RW: You always have concern this time of year when you're playing. One thing that's crazy is we finish our finals now but most of the other teams don't their finals until a week before the conference tournament and in some cases during the conference tournament. So guys have their minds on a lot of different things. They're trying to complete projects, they're college students. Should they already have it already done by then? Yeah. But do most of them? No. Most college students don't. The deadline is when they get it done. So you worry a little bit about the amount of energy they put into finishing up. We give our kids a lot of time to go do what they need to do. In order to do well in school they kind of have to forget about what they're preparing for baseball wise and get that done and move on. I think to a certain extent that has something to do with preparation. San Jose they just beat the crud out of us on Friday but every ball they hit went in the hole. They not only performed real well, you tend to get irritated when you get beat by somebody that didn't hit the ball real hard all day and just kind of hit it where you weren't. But they did both. They hit the ball hard and they hit it where we weren't. I didn't think, I know D.J. Simon wasn't as good as he should have been, or the rest of the guys that threw that day but I didn't think they were that bad either. I think it was just a combination, they [San Jose State] played real good top quality baseball and we weren't quite ready to play early in the game and we couldn't get the energy back to get it stopped. When you play doubleheaders momentum is important. We got beat pretty bad, we thought that Jared Jordan had been kind of our stabilizing guy, he'd pitched some pretty important games for us, he went out and pitched pretty well early for us but then gave up a couple big innings. We just really couldn't stop them when they got moving. That was really the difference between the first three games and the last game. They just never got momentum in the last game. We did a better job of stopping it.

I think that if it's going to happen to you it may as well happen now. It'll remotivate a couple guys to go back and work harder and get focused again on what they're trying to get accomplished and the end result is that we clearly wanted to win a WAC regular season title. That was a goal that we had. We're disappointed we didn't get it done, as are our fans and people around our program, at least at this point. We could be where San Jose is. They're in the driver's seat. They're in a situation right now where have their own destiny in their hands. They can win their way to a title. Obviously if they win four they're the WAC champions. But we also have this team that we're getting ready to play this next weekend [La. Tech] that's got 11 wins that can get to the 14 win mark. But then again I'm pretty sure San Jose swept La. Tech so San Jose has the tiebreaker. That's where we'd hoped we would be. It didn't work out that way, you've gotta forgive yourself. Go back and lean on your teammates a little bit, push on each other to get better and get ready to go into Louisiana Tech.

The game Sunday became very very important because if you don't win on Sunday and you get swept at home, not only is it very hard emotionally but numbers wise it would have made us have to go into La. Tech and win two or three just to get in the tournament. At this point one win probably gets us in, two puts us in the middle of the league and puts us into a reasonable seed, three can get us into the top of the league in the two or three hole.

bc.net: Let's talk a little bit about the league standings. One of the big stories is there are four teams that will have played fewer games than everybody else. How does the league handle the standings when you have a few teams [like Sacramento State] that have games canceled and won't be made up and would have impacted league standings in a significant way?
RW: It's determined based on winning percentage. If they [Sacramento State] split with Fresno they'll both have 10 wins, but Sacramento will have fewer losses and a higher winning percentage so they're in. We're used to looking at games back because people are generally used to looking at Major League Baseball's standings throughout the year where games back is a little bit easier to figure out. But in college leagues most of us don't make up rain games because there's too much cost in both money and class missed time. When I was in the old Big Eight, we actually had a deal where if it got rained out, the team had to stay over one more day and the home team had to provide hotel rooms but the visiting team had to make the different arrangements. That was a little bit different type of league back then because there weren't a whole lot of people flying. Most people were busing to locations and so you didn't have flights to change and things like that. So in college leagues, and the way we do it in the WAC is simple. You go by winning percentage and that's the order of finish, whether people have equal number of games or not. We've been spoiled, we play here in the west and southwest where weather is good. This has been kind of a weird year where we'll have four teams that have less than 24 [league] games played.

There's really not a conflict, you just do it by winning percentage, that's the only fair way to do it. I remember one year in the Big Eight when I was playing we had one of those bad weather years, a lot like they've had this year. They've had a lot of rainouts in the midwest. Iowa State back then only played like 14 games of a 24 game schedule and what they did in the league then is they just brought everybody to the tournament. That's how they made it fair. But we don't have a contingency for that and to be honest we don't have somebody that's that far different. Sacramento is going to end up two games short and I don't believe anybody else is going to end up three [games] short. So what you end up doing is taking a lot of the tiebreaking stuff out of the equation. The way we do it is if two teams are tied with the same record, you go to head to head first, if you split the series head to head then you go to your record against the first place team and down the standings if it's still tied. The tiebreak formula could possibly come down to a coin flip. If you go through the whole process it could come all the way down to a coin flip. It's not something we agreed with as coaches but it's not realistic to have a one game playoff or a series. You can't do it because of time and realistically the chances of it getting to that are very small.

bc.net: This weekend is obviously a big series. Their game against Grambling was canceled because of a scheduling conflict so they'll have actually had about a week and a half off between games by the time you open up your series on Thursday. This series is a little different because the doubleheader will be played the first day, Thursday. What effect will the short turnaround have for your team and the pitching staff?
RW: I think it's probably the best thing considering where we were. I think those kids that had tough outings want to get back out there as soon as you can so they don't have to wear it. I think they're anxious to get back and I think it'll be an advantage. La. Tech, I'm sure Wade [Simoneaux] is concerned a little bit because they haven't had a chance to play. They were the hottest team in the league. They were getting after people, they'd gone from 1-7 to 11-9. It looked early on like they were gonna be the guy [to miss the conference tournament] and they got it completely turned around and put themselves in a position where they can win the league. When you're in those cases where your team is moving, you want to play. They'll view it as a disadvantage and you can do as much as you can as a coach to negate those things but you can never completely negate it. You can have simulated scrimmages, you can talk to guys about it, you can ignore it. There's lots of different options in dealing with the motivation of your ball club team. But realistically it's going to come down to just like anything else, we have to go in there ready to get after it right off the bat. If you win on Thursday it sets you up in pretty good position. We're going to play a doubleheader that day and so a lot of things will be established after day one. We'll have a pretty good idea of where us and La. Tech are. If La. Tech wins two against us, they're going to have a whole lot of motivation because they're going to be in a position to win the league. If you split, then you're both kind of looking at a neutral thing as all splits are.

They're all important series. Just look at Sacramento and Fresno. They're both fighting for their lives. If somebody wins three out of four in the series, they've probably sealed the fate of the other. If they split then they're going to have to look for some help from some other people for their positioning. Then you have San Jose and Nevada. San Jose is now in a position, you find out a little bit more about how good they are, not from an athletic standpoint but how prepared they are to win a championship. They're going to play a weekend, at home, but against a very good Nevada team and you've gotta discount what happened to Nevada against Sacramento. There's a ton of history and tradition there. Nevada's always struggled with Sacramento State even back to the Big West days 12 or 14 years ago. Sacramento and Nevada have always played each other tight regardless of where each of them is playing in that respective year in the rankings. It didn't really surprise me that Sacramento won three out of four but it did surprise me how they did it. They handled them [Nevada] pretty well. I would expect Nevada is going to be a pretty tough chore for San Jose.

If you look at the three series, ours probably has the least amount of pressure compared to the other two.

Overall, we're not going to be impacted by the shorter rest. We're going to be fine. We're looking at a couple different scenarios, what happens to you in the last weekend you're trying to do two things. You're trying to establish seeding, you're trying to get into the tournament but you're also trying to set yourself up for the conference tournament. Realistically from the position we're in, and everybody else in the league except for Hawai'i, San Jose's power rating still isn't high enough to put them into an at-large situation. They may have a case, just like we would have, if they win the league and go to the conference final and win it, they may have a case for an at-large but it depends on how the committee is going to look at RPI. The highest our projected RPI can get to is somewhere in the 60s and you need to be in the Top 40 in RPI to really be considered strongly for an at-large bid.

All of us are in a position where we know we've got to get in the tournament and in the process of reaching that goal, we have to put ourselves in the best position pitching-wise to win the tournament. It doesn't do much good to play an entire year and not feel like you've got your guys in the best alignment with the best chance to win. I'm not really big on losing but playing well. I'm not very big on being proud of the effort and all that stuff. I'm not going to go into the tournament to win one game or play to get to the final if I can't win the final. That doesn't seem to make much logical sense to me. It does to some people. As an example last year I was criticized a little bit because Sebastien Vendette, who had been pitching the best for us, never got to the mound. We got beat two in a row. Well, I set it up the best way I could to give us a chance to win. Okay, the guy who's been pitching the best for us never got to the mound. But if I use him to get to the next round and then I had no chance to win, that just seems kind of counterproductive to me. It's the way I thought in 2002 when we did win the tournament. We set the thing up and took some risks and put ourselves in the position so that when we got to the finals and faced South Alabama to win it. We didn't know we were going to win it but we knew we had our guys lined up the best we could be.

A lot of this weekend for us is going to be in how we set up our pitching and how we also set up for Hawai'i. We're probably going to go to Jordan and Vendette on Thursday, that puts Sebastien on pretty short rest. But if we go with Jordan and Vendette and Simon on Friday in the third game, then it really puts us in a position where we could use any of those three guys in the opening game with pretty full rest. And we want to be able to match up. I want to be able to go up against whoever it might be. If it's Nevada, Simon and Jordan were pretty good against those guys. If it's San Jose, then it's going to be Vendette. You know who pitched the other ball clubs the best. The kids still have to go out and perform but that's our job as coaches is to put the kids in the best situation we can to give them the best chance to perform.

Then you put Sturdevant on the Saturday game. He's been our number one all year so why would we do that? Well it does risk in this case, Sturdevant not getting to the mound in the WAC tournament but if we're able to win the first two games, I want him pitching in the championship game in the winners' bracket side that would then get you to the championship. But if you feel like the matchups are okay, then Sturdevant would be in the position to pitch in the championship game, third or fourth game in the tournament.

It's the crazy thing we deal with in the game of baseball. Dad gets a little bit frustrated with the way some people view specific games and one of the comments he'll occasionally make is, "Come one people, I can't start the same starting quarterback every game. I've got different guys. If football had four different guys that they had to start in a rotation, they would be a different team based on who's behind center. We are impacted by the fact that pitchers can't throw every day and we have to manage their health and we have to manage their freshness and at the same time match up their stuff against the opponent so that they have the best chance at success.

bc.net: This past weekend you got Richard Stout back and even though there's a few guys who aren't at full strength, you're back to having a full deck of players to play with on offense. Is this maybe as healthy, particularly your pitching staff, as one of your teams has been in a while?
RW: Yeah. Jake Wilson has a little shoulder soreness, we've held him out the last two weekends and we're hopeful he'll respond. Really as it turned out the only late inning game was Sunday and the freshman Justin Cooper and redshirt Scott Coffman did an outstanding job in pitching those innings. We were comfortable with that. We would have noticed it a little more if the earlier games had been closer and we needed more of those types of innings pitched.

Overall yes, we're in good health on both sides of the ball. Leo Aguirre has gotten to the point where he's really gotten comfortable with his knee issue and his brace. I think he's back to about 90%. He's covering about the same amount of range in the outfield as he was before the injury. He's back to a solid 90%. He's swinging the bat a lot better, he had a pretty good weekend with the bat. The most important thing on the injury front is we've got [Mike] Sodders back and he can play first which gives me more flexibility in who I can DH. With Sodders as DH and not being able to play a decision, I pretty much had to play Harty at first and Sodders at DH and I really didn't have any options. But now [Kyle] Decater has swung the bat well in the opportunities he's gotten and I want the option against a good right hander, especially a good breaking ball guy, to play Decater. And I want the option to be able to rest Leo from playing defense, I've still got to protect his knee a little bit. And with Sodders as DH, I've got to choose between Leo and Mikey. I get to choose between two .400 hitters and I'd like them both in the lineup.

Richard Stout came through the weekend really solid. He had a disadvantage in that he couldn't swing right handed and he had to face the two best left-handers in the league left handed which he has not done ever. Those were his first at-bats in his life facing a left handed pitcher from the left side of the plate. And he did a nice job with it. He was a natural right-handed thrower and hitter as a kid and turned himself into a switch hitter so obviously he has had experience being a right handed hitter against a right handed pitcher. By the time we get to the conference tournament he may feel like he can swing the bat right handed but as far as I can tell he does just as well as left-handed hitter against left-handed pitching.

bc.net: Last week the league announced that the conference tournament would be headed to Mesa, AZ in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Maybe a nice advantage for the Aggies, it's not a big change in environement.
RW: It fits us. I think it's a nice advantage because we're going to be playing desert baseball. I think everybody liked it because of the cost advantages. There's an ex-WAC official that's now working with the greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce so we had a nice tie in with somebody that could help put it together. The city of Mesa thought it would be a great idea. We thought as coaches it would be great to go to a neutral site, it would be fair for everybody for the first time. It would be more cost effective. At the time we made these decisions the economy hadn't tanked but fuel prices were way up so travel costs were sky high. There were a lot of good reasons to do that and the end result is that we're one of those teams that has to spend a lot of money to go places so it gives us a little break. Flights to Phoenix are pretty cheap and we'll also have an option to bus over there. It's not a bad bus trip either way. From a playing standpoint, we're going to stay in the same type of environment. We won't have what we're getting ready to do where we're going from 90 degrees and low humidity and hard infields and desert baseball to Hawai'i where it's complete opposite. I like the idea. The coaches voted overwhelmingly to do it. I'm happy the [WAC] administration did what we asked them to do and looked into it. I'm happy that Mesa really wants to do it. We kept saying, guys if we go do it at the same place, we've got a better chance for t.v. coverage. We have a better chance to develop a fanbase. Everybody knows where Omaha is, they've tied into it. The same type of thing can happen in the WAC tournament. There are a lot of retired people in the area, there are obviously a lot of baseball fans in the area, we're going to be playing in the Cubs' spring training facility. There are a lot of people who are used to going to baseball games just because they like baseball and not necessarily because of the teams, they just want to go watch baseball. And with our proximity, we have a good large number of alumni that live in that area. It'll give a lot of our alumni the chance to see is without having to make the six hour drive over here or jump on an airplane. It's a neat thing, I don't see any disadvantages.

bc.net: In terms of exposure what can it do for exposure for the WAC and also for recruiting for a lot of the kids in that area and particularly for the Aggies because we're very close in proximity, probably closer than any other team.
RW: It'll be an advantage to us in two ways. It'll be an advantage that our local scouts, the scouts that scout our areas scout the four corners, they'll get another look at our kids that they normally would not get. It'll be advantageous from the standpoint of professional draft. It'll be advantageous because that's a part of our recruiting base. The state of Arizona is not recruited by Fresno, or San Jose or Sacramento. Hawai'i will, he [Mike Trapasso] tries to go out and he kind of has to, there aren't enough players on the island. I think we gain a pretty good avantage and La. Tech probably doesn't go there. So yeah, it puts us in a pretty good advantage both ways.

I'm more pleased with the location because of what it can do for my current players. Historically we've always gone out of our scouts' base to play in the conference tournament. Conference tournament is where kids can really increase or decrease their stock. It tells the scouts a little bit about their heart and soul and their competitiveness under pressure. Those games are different than regular season games. I think it'll be a real good thing for our guys. When we go to Hawai'i the scouts in the area are not going to have seen my kids play for a good month before the draft. I think that's a disadvantage. Conference tournament is now going to be in their base and it'll be better attended than any of the games we play here [in Las Cruces]. Almost all of those guys, of the 30 organizations plus the scouting bureau, there's actually 31 guys out there and I think 25 or 26 of them live in Phoenix. They've just got to get up and drive across town to see us play so there'll be a big advantage for us there.