bleedCrimson.net: You had a pretty good week, you picked up win number 400, you picked up your first regular season championship and maybe more importantly your ball club is hot again going into the WAC tournament.
Rocky Ward: Yeah we got a lot of things accomplished that made it a fun week. To get all of those things accomplished and to do it on the road and against a little bit of pressure, our backs against the wall, it was good to see. I thought that we had an opportunity in the game against San Jose State to have one of those all or nothing feels that you have in tournament play where every game has that feel a little bit. The first one does and then obviously any elimination game you play does. The winner's bracket team doesn't always go through and win every game of tournament and so I think the experience of learning to prepare and then playing well under those circumstances was pretty important.
San Jose started Guzman on Sunday. He hadn't had a real good year but he'd been their guy. If Guzman had been able to give them five which is what they'd planned on, then they had Zach Jones who has a mid-90's arm, great pro prospect and a closer available because they didn't have to use him the first two days. So even though it turned into a 15-2 rout, the guys understood that we had to get it established early and we had to do a good job against a good pitcher. We took them out of their game plan. That all worked out well and I'm pleased with the experience. I talked to you about the experience of going to Baylor, going to Rice, going to Arizona to play. All of those, even going to Texas Tech with their nice new facility and tough crowd, all of those will bode well for the conference tournament as well as any regional that we expect to be able to qualify for.
bc.net: We talked about the importance of getting that win yesterday and a lot of people probably don't understand the kind of closing stretch that you had to play in the last week. You ended up playing eight games in nine days, with two extra innings games and a doubleheader. For your team to finish up winning four in a row and the team never trailed during that stretch and led 32 of the 34 innings. How impressive is it for the team to have closed like that?
RW: At the end of the tournament last year here in Mesa, Parker Hipp sat down with me and said, "Coach, this is the second time we've sputtered at the end of the season and haven't done well in the tournament. What do we do?" At the time I didn't have an answer other than, "We have to play better, Parker. We have to prepare more." I pretty much told him, he was still a pretty young kid at the time still a sophomore but obviously very experienced at the time but not quite the veteran status that he is now, I said, "I've got six months to get that figured out." That was all about I could say at the time. We were both deeply disappointed and he probably expected much more wise an answer than I was able to provide. But I've thought about it for almost a year. That kid sitting down with me and saying, "Hey, I don't want to go through this again, I need your help." That's kind of the feeling that we had.
One of the conversations that I had with the ball club after the Hawai'i and Fresno series was I told them a story about a guy named Larry Cochell. Larry Cochell was a baseball coach at Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma, at Northridge in California and then Oklahoma University and at Oklahoma he won a national title. The story is that when Cochell came on the scene, dad and Oklahoma State were a dominant team. He had won like 10 consecutive Big 8 title which ended up being 16. One of the problems historically that Oklahoma had had was they had played Oklahoma State pretty even during the regular season but when it came to tournament time they always got beat. I think dad's record was just over .500 in the regular season against OU but it was like .800 or .900 during the Big 8 tournament. Whether or not he verbally told his team, which I doubt he did, but what Larry Cochell did was he downplayed the Big 8 tournament and he set his entire team up the entire year to play a very good schedule so that when they got to the Big 8 tournament they'd be in a position to get an at-large bid. So when it got to the Big 8 tournament they just ignored it more or less. They went into the tournament, played two games, got beat and just went on. So the year that Oklahoma won a national championship they got beat two in a row in the Big 8 tournament but the one thing we noticed about them was they acted like they didn't care and they didn't because they'd been prepared the entire year to play a great regular season, quit fighting and hitting their head against the wall about Oklahoma State and making that their whole season. Even when they got beat in the Big 8 tournament and got an at-large bid, the loss to Oklahoma State haunted them and they didn't play well in Regionals. So I think, this as a guy on the outside looking in, he basically said, "Hey, we don't care about the Big 8 tournament. Let Oklahoma State have their venue but we're going to have a great regular season, we're going to prepare for Regional and have a great postseason and they did. They went on to win the national championship. So it's a little bit of about what I've talked to our guys about. I said, "The last three years Hawai'i and Fresno have been at the end of the season, we've done poorly against them, we've spent a lot of energy on them and we did again this year. We spent a lot of energy against those teams and we've come out of it 1-5 in the six games." I guess more than anything I wanted them to understand that the games that we played against Hawai'i and Fresno did not mark us. It's just one of those traditions that we're having a hard time breaking through, don't worry about it. What we do from this point forward is the most important thing. You know, it took a couple days but we played very well against New Mexico at New Mexico and obviously we played very well against San Jose and took care of business. Honestly, I think that was the key to getting through it. Instead of beating ourselves up over the fact that we've struggled with two teams in the league, the other thing I explained to them was that we still are the one team that holds the honor of having beaten Fresno State in the conference tournament for the first time in their history and Hawai'i is not the same team on the road as they are at home. Overall I think for the first time I got it figured out. It took me almost 10 months to kind of figure it out and it went all the way back to when I was a kid watching what Oklahoma did.
McKinley Boston told me in a meeting I had with him a couple weeks ago, "You seem to give Fresno State too much respect." I thought about it and took his advice and said, "You know, they're no different. We've beaten them, we've played them head-to-head. Maybe I'm causing some of this because of my feelings and attitudes about the series." I finally kind of did some soul searching, took some responsibility and took some action and the guys responded to it. I feel really good about where we're in the tournament. Am I worried about playing Fresno or Hawai'i in the tournament? Not at all. I truly believe Hawai'i has a hard time playing away from their ballpark and I believe that this ballpark favors us as much as their ballpark favors them. I think whatever advantage they had in playing us at Hawai'i is going to be lost here. I think it'll be a pretty good matchup. Now are we going to walk in and roll over them? No, they're good baseball teams. No question about that.
But I think that overall the team is in the right state of mind. They know who they are. I think some players during this stretch, you've heard this before, started trying to do things they couldn't do. Trying too hard. I think they just tried to do too much. I think more than anything over this stretch guys did what they could do and everybody is doing what they can do and that's what we did early in the year that made us so good. Guys just being who they are, giving what they can give. Bryce Griffin is a perfect example. Bryce is not a real good offensive player. He's a solid defender who played really fabulous baseball through this stretch in place of Zach Voight. Zach has been kind of an emotional leader on the ball club. He's a very well respected kid in how he plays the game, how he approaches it and what his results are. But Bryce took that role and said, "Okay, I'm getting guy shot." He made the plays he could make, he didn't try to do anything more than what he could. As an offensive player he put the ball in play and he had a great game on Sunday against San Jose. It was a 3-for-4 performance with a couple RBIs and got to feel like he was a part of this great offense. I think a lot of players fed off of his effort and I think that's really what happens with good ball clubs. It's not always about players playing way over their heads, it's about more playing doing what they can do best and it's part of the reason I really feel good about this group and why they feel good about themselves.
They've forgiven themselves for that seven game losing streak and that period of time where we lost 10-of-14 which obviously included Baylor and Texas Tech and New Mexico on the road. Of those 14 games I think the majority of them were road games against good opponents. Overall I think they've done what they needed to do. They said, "Alright, this is who we are, this is what we've done. I understand it. Let's just go back and play."
bc.net: When you look back at last week, the two early games, a couple things really stood out. You got a couple of good outings out of Tyler Mack and Casey Collins. How important was it that those two guys have those kind of performances heading into the conference tournament and do you have that feeling back that you have three very good starters and a couple of guys who can come in and give you long relief if you need it?
RW: Yeah and Evan Mott too. Evan had an inning and a third against Bakersfield where they were making a run at us where he was good. He had an inning against San Jose State in the last inning, he wasn't terribly happy about being in the game in that position but it was about getting him some work and I think he's starting to understand that a little bit. Each guy on the pitching staff is who he is. Coffman knows exactly what his role is, Beck, Adam Mott and Ormseth have earned their starting roles, clearly. Casey Collins has shown the ability to be one of those guys but he's not one of the top three guys. But the game he pitched against Bakersfield may have been the most important game of the year and he still has the win against Arizona on his home turf. So he's done some things that tell you, if somehow in the tournament we get knocked into the loser's bracket, I'll match Casey Collins up against anybody's three or four in the league. So you feel like you have a good advantage and along with Evan Mott, Tyler Mack and the three left-handers that we're using basically to go get us an out here or there against left-handed hitters, those kids have all established their roles really well. I think the only guy that has struggled with his role has been Evan Mott. He's struggled with his success. He'll have a real good outing and then a below average outing. But his last two outings he's been good. His stuff has been good and he's throwing strikes. What I like about my pitching staff is that I don't think there's anybody that we're afraid of. There have been years, other teams, not just my teams, where a guy's been so inconsistent that you don't know what you're going to get. You can have a five run lead in the sixth and you bring him in and all of the sudden people get tight and you don't know what guy you're getting. It's a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type of deal. Overall I think we have a pretty good feel about what we're getting from guys.
I'm pleased overall with the roles that have been established with the pitching staff. I think they know what to expect and they're very well prepared for it. We still need, as you always do in a conference tournament and postseason, you need quality starts out of your starters. If you're going to win a conference tournament you need a seven inning start out of your starters and a two inning close out of Coffman. That's what you want to go at every time you get a chance. If you don't get your starter bridged to Coffman then you have to have some other guys step in and we feel like we have guys that can fill those roles.
I think to a certain extent through the bad stretch that's what we couldn't do. We just couldn't get to Coffman. The starters would pitch pretty well, we just couldn't quite get that bridge done. We couldn't get the sixth and seventh innings pitching and I think we feel a little more comfortable now.
bc.net: After yesterday's game and winning a regular season championship, have you noticed any difference in the ball club at all?
RW: Yeah, they're more relaxed. I know that all of us were carrying a lot of pressure. Not all the time, we weren't walking around tight but there was just that little edge about everybody. I think that's the one thing that I was pleased about when I got to the ballpark on Sunday, the edge was gone. Guys had kind of said, "Hey, it's all or nothing. We're ready for this, we'll take whatever we get, we're going to put it all on the field." That was a good feeling and it's always great when you then follow it up with a 15-2 win. Realistically it didn't change after the game, it changed before the game. When I look back to it, it may have changed in Bakersfield, before we got to San Jose. We had this dadgum leading 5-0 jinx against us and voila it's the fifth inning and we're leading 5-0 and we made it an inning or two before they scored three but they had a chance to beat us right then and there and we got it stopped and got the win and I think finally, that made us feel like some of this bad baseball luck might be over.
The trip from Bakersfield was quick. You play the game, get in the hotel, get up early, drive to the airport, barely get there in time through L.A. traffic, go to San Jose and practice. It was one of those things where i think what you're talking about happened after the Bakersfield game and each game was played, we get a great outing out of Beck and we win a game 3-1. Then another great outing out of Adam Mott and you win a 4-2 game and you're going, "we haven't swung the bats great but we've gotten good pitching and we've played really, really quality defense." So there was enough to grab onto and if you're going to finish the story right, the 15-2 game, great pitching, great hitting was perfect for what we needed.
After the game, I didn't know what to expect. I was a little bit worried about guys dog piling and stuff because they knew at that time that we were going to be the WAC champion but they didn't do it. I was really proud of them. They just kind of took a breath, looked each other in the eye, shook hands and it's the way that I want my kids to act. They acted like they planned to do something and did it, were happy about it and didn't overreact. Most people overreact to situations where something happens that they didn't expect. I was proud of them because i was concerned about being respectful to San Jose State. They were eliminated from the tournament, that's a tough situation with their players and kids but we did a good job, we shook their hands, they shook our hands. We had fun in the vans on the way home. Turned a little music on and had a little fun but I was just proud of the way they handled it overall.
Down the line after the game I just told the ball club "Thank You." And then I realized after I said it I didn't know if they'd know what I'd meant. What I meant was "Thank You. Sixteen years it took me to win a conference championship. Thanks." I was really appreciative of what they did for me and they understood it. They understood how important this is to me and that was a cool thing.
At the same time the guys have moved on very quickly to the next goal. They're happy as they can be to be in a position where, as hard as it was to get done, they got the title that they wanted and got to the position that maybe a month ago we thought we were going to be in this position and then we put it in jeopardy and when we got it back, I think more than anything there was just relief in the fact that we were able to come out of the dust and reach the goals that at one point we thought that maybe were slipping away a little bit.
bc.net: Heading into the tournament, we won't know the opponent until after the games on Wednesday. Over the next couple of days what is your message to the ball club?
RW: We needed some time down. I gave the kids the day off, several of the teams are at the Diamondback/Dodger game tonight in town. Tomorrow we'll get up and have breakfast and we have a workout tomorrow at 2:00, not on the main facility, they only let the four teams that are going to be playing on Wednesday work on the facility tomorrow. The number one and two seeds work out on an auxiliary site. I've spent a lot of time over the last two or three weeks talking to the players, we've done a lot of that work. We'll have a nice workout and talk tomorrow about what the contingencies are because once this tournament gets started it goes fast. You play every day, you don't know who you're going to play. You have to be ready to get after it. You can't be happy or upset based on who you play. That'll be the biggest discussion we have. It doesn't matter who you play, it only matters how you play.