bleedCrimson.net Weekly Coach Ward Interview :: 03/23/10

bleedCrimson.net: Ben Harty was named the WAC Hitter of the Week this week and he's maybe the one guy on the team that has improved the most from last season as far as offense.
Rocky Ward: Yeah, he is the most consistent offensive guy. We kinda felt like he might have deserved Hitter of the Week last week but it's kind of hard to do that when you don't win the series. The last couple of weeks he's been absolutely on fire and he had the game winning home run in the game we did win last weekend. What's been great about Ben is he's made the transition from first base to catch and he's actually become a better hitter. It's actually helped him. Tracking and seeing the ball as many times as you do as a catcher helps your vision, especially when you're playing on the road when you hit. The problem is most times it's countered by you being worn out by the physical job you have to do as a catcher. Ben is a big kid and it doesn't seem to bother him as much.

He had inconsistencies last year, he was fabulous at times. This year he's been nothing but great. Even when he's had a couple bat at bats here and there but he's countered them with good ones. He hasn't had any long droughts. I guess you know when a hitter has arrived when he's gone out and gone 0 for his last 8, which I know he's done some time during the season, and you don't notice it because every at bat is quality. He fouls some pitches off, guys really have to make good pitches to get him out. He's had a really good year and he's really been a key guy.

When we talked before the season and wanted to know who was going to lead in different aspects of the game, last year Marquez was the on the field leader as the guy everybody wanted to see come to the plate with the game on the line, Ben has taken that role. He's hit a couple game winning home runs. Actually this weekend on Friday he hit a game winning home run except it was stolen by the center fielder. So it wasn't a home run obviously, just a fly ball in the book but the outfielder went up over the wall and stole a grand slam from him.

bc.net: Last season Ben was a hitter where it seemed like with him at the plate it was either going to be a home run or a strikeout. This year he's been much more consistent, he's hitting .444 with 40 hits, six doubles and 11 home runs and only 23 strikeouts. What's been the difference from last season to this season and what was he working on in the offseason to become a more consistent hitter?
RW: The bottom line is that big strong guys have to learn that you don't have to hit the ball 500 feet. You need to hit it 401 more often. That's really what he worked on. Getting more contact, being a little more selective about his pitches. I talked to him today in the batting cage a little bit. He has a tendency because he's seeing the ball so well to swing at everything. I reminded him during practice, "You've really got to work hard at being more selective. Don't just swing at everything that goes up there. Be a little more selective. I know you're seeing the ball good and you feel like you can hit anything but when you have that day when you're not seeing the ball very well and your rhythm's not very good you can always go back and lean on being more selective as to which pitches to swing at." That's really been his best thing. The other thing is Ben isn't a very good DH. There are certain players who are fine as DH's. Ben played at first a lot but he also DH'd a lot. Some guys have to have the flow of the game. They have a hard time maintaining focus when they're not playing defense.

Ben really worked hard this fall. Last fall he hit 18 home runs in the fall, this year he hit 10 or 12 but he was a much better hitter and we felt really good about him coming out of the fall.

bc.net: This past weekend you went to Santa Barbara and won the series there 2-1. Obviously we won't know until the end of the season just how important that series was for your team but just looking at it right now, how important was this series to win for your club?
RW: I think anytime you lose a series at home regardless of how good the team might be and Georgia State is a pretty good ballcub, you still feel like you played poorly. We needed the series. We got blown up in the 30-24 game on Sunday and we come back the next Saturday in the first game of the doubleheader and we give up some runs early and play from behind. They [UCSB] have got a real legitimate starter probably an All-Conference First Teamer for the Big West and maybe an All-American type guy, a big left-hander that's 92, 93 mph and he really gave us fits. But we really worked hard on him. I was really proud of my hitters. I thought we challenged him every time he threw a pitch and we got him out of the game and we had the bullpen beaten. That's what you do when you're facing a dominant starter, you've got to make him work. If you can get that extra 10 or 15 pitches in a game and force the opponent to go to the bullpen earlier than they'd like then you have a chance to win. You know on the start of the game that it's likely you're not going to beat the starter but you don't have to beat him, you've got to beat the bullpen. We did that and really did a really nice job with the game. So it was a loss but it wasn't a bad loss like some of them have been. There are five losses this year that we felt like we've played poorly, played bad and handed games away. We felt like we were a better ballclub and just didn't play good enough to win. In this particular game I think we really played pretty solid throughout. We still struggled a little bit on the mound but we're still trying to get our psyche adjusted a little bit and be a little tougher on the mound when we get in trouble instead of giving up big innings.

We got back in the game and we got beat because a guy hit a ground ball right through the mound, just a regular play, seeing eye single and then executed the game, bunted and got to second then got a single to score the tying run. Then kind of the same deal, we got a dumper to right field and as it turns out we got beat on a play where the runner was taking off so the second baseman had to go cover the bad, the first baseman was holding the runner and they dumped the ball to right on a ball that normally the second baseman would have probably caught on the run if he wasn't covering the stolen base. Instead it dumps in front of the right fielder and the guy scores all the way from first base and we get beat. So it was a frustrating loss but looking back to it we played solid baseball. We weren't great but we played good enough under pressure, especially coming off the real disappointing loss coming on Sunday.

Then we bounced back in game two and got a win which was really satisfying. In Sunday's game, neither team played real well early but that's normal. Playing an 11:00 game on Sunday morning after a doubleheader the day before. It's kind of hard to get your body moving. Everybody is kind of tired and sore. Both teams made a couple errors early and then we were able to take over the game in the middle of the game because we got a real good relief performance from Ryan Beck. We got a pretty solid start out of Tyler Mack. He gave up five runs. The kid really pitched well and deserved better. It was one of those things where if we had made a couple of plays he may have shut them out.

bc.net: You were still looking for that bounce back performance from your pitching staff heading into the weekend and clearly you got that on Sunday giving up just five runs and pitching scoreless baseball over the final six innings on Sunday. Did this weekend do for the staff what you hoped it would do?
RW: D.J. Simon was a key to us. Jordan pitched in game one and wasn't great but kept us in it and gave us a chance to win. In game two D.J. went 4 1/3 of one hit baseball with no runs that basically allowed us to win that game. Those two guys have been the guys that have struggled this year that has really made it tough and those were the guys at the beginning of the year who you didn't think much about, they're gonna go do their stuff and if you have some of the new guys and some of the young kids perform up to what you think, then you have a chance to be a really good pitching staff. Our numbers at this stage don't say we are but a lot of that has to with the fact that we hadn't had a whole lot of leadership. It was a really important weekend for both Jared Jordan and D.J. Simon. They both came in and did what they were supposed to do. Again, Jordan's wasn't as good but Simon's was dominant and showed signs of what he was able to do for us last year. Then we got a good solid start out of freshman Tyler Mack and an outstanding relief performance out of Ryan Beck. Three or four pitcher kind of changed their feel for the season.

So all this stuff when you look back a month from now when we start conference play, this series might very well be the most important series that we played. But it won't be until we get through this next nine game run the way we want to. Wofford will be a pretty good ball club coming in this weekend. We need to play well against them.

You get in trouble as a coach talking about numbers, it really has no value. But you're sitting at 13-10 and if you're able to go 7-2 or better, 7-2 puts you at 20-12 and at 20-12 you'd feel pretty good going into the league. With the way we started and a couple of the games we feel like we dumped away, you'd feel like that was a pretty good stabilizing record. But you can't say if we do this, then we're going to do something else. Obviously you don't want to go 2-7 during that stretch but we think that we're in a nice stable middle ground. The next nine games gives us the opportunity to get some momentum going into league.

When you look at the league statistics there's nobody that's been dominant. Everybody is basically right around .500. Hawai'i has really played a difficult schedule. We still feel like we're good enough to compete in the top of the league. Are we quite ready? If we finish 7-2 in these next nine, then you feel like maybe we've earned our way back to start thinking about winning the league title.

bc.net: What are your thoughts on this weekend's series with Wofford and what do you expect to see from them?
RW: I think they'll be a solid baseball team. I don't think they'll be overwhelming in any stretch or form. I haven't looked close enough at their numbers to see if they have a legitimate number one pitcher or not or a legitimate middle of the lineup guy or not. Those are the two things you worry about. Do they have a dominant offensive player, do they have a dominant starter, do they have a dominant closer? That'll be something we'll be looking at the next couple days.

i expect them to be a solid team that we'll have to play good baseball against. One of the things that teams have trouble with us is in a four game series it's really tough to pitch us. The good guys you bring, we're going to make them work their tails off, we're going to make you go to your bullpen, we're going to make you use your guys to the point where you feel like you don't have any pitching left. That's maybe been the biggest disappointment in the St. Joseph's series and the Georgia State series is in both of those Sunday games when we got blown up, we had on paper a big pitching advantage. They didn't have anybody left as is evidenced by the number of runs we scored but we just couldn't stop them. We felt like we had more pitching depth. I still think when it's all said and done will play itself out. Our pitching depth as we continue to develop guys is going to get better as the year goes on. I think it'll be a solid series. Each game will be a challenge and that's something you want this time of year. You don't want walk-over opponents. You want somebody who has a chance to beat you because that's what you're preparing for in league.