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 season opening series against New Orleans, talks about what he was pleased with overall and takes a look at the upcoming series against Ball State.
bleedCrimson.net: Can you talk a little bit about the series overall?
Rocky Ward: The series as a whole, I thought we played pretty decent baseball, we played nervously defensively the first day. Guys swung the bat very well throughout the entire weekend. We did what we thought and maybe a little bit more than what I thought we were ready to do on the offensive side of the game.
Really defensively most of the errors we made, I think we made 10, five of them were from pitchers which is something that you work on but it's an individual guy. He's out there to pitch not necessarily his defense and we're going to work on that in the next few days. There were at least four errors on pickoffs. Our middle infield, [Richard] Stout and [Bryan] Marquez made none, I think we had one error in the outfield that we got an advancement on but realistically we didn't get hurt much by it.
Pitching wise on the weekend, it was tough. They were prime offensive conditions. Wind's blowing out and low humidity. Overall I thought we pitched reasonably well the first two days and then the offenses both got on track in the last game. It was almost the last team to put up a big inning was going to get it done. Overall at the same time, that game we got down big but our offense brought us back and at home you should be able to hold that. You get a lot of momentum, I give New Orleans a lot of credit for not giving up. And they did it with the bats, we didn't walk them, we didn't give them anything, they did it with base hits and with power.
bc.net: Can you talk about the first game? You were able to get a come from behind victory in that one?
RW: Yeah it was actually a game where we led 7-2 at one point and give up a big inning because of our defense and again it was because of our pitching defense really more than anything. We let them get back in it, let it get tight and then our offense did a good job and [Tyler] Sturdevant came in and did what we haven't had for two years and that's a guy that can go in and throw three innings of three hit baseball, one run in four innings. If you have guys that can do that in college baseball the last three innings, you're gonna win. It was pretty good.
From a coaching standpoint that game met a lot of criteria you're trying to get met. That is you can go out in front in a game and front run a little bit and keep going offensively and not get complacent which some offensive teams do. We really work hard, when you get leads you have to extend them, particularly in college baseball. But also to have the component of an offensive comeback and a defensive hold, those are all things you're trying to establish that a ballclub can do. That's the way big games are won and so I think we met a lot of goals in that.
Game two was a similar deal. We led early and then we gave up the lead in the middle and then came back and finished and managed to hold on. Both games were outstanding offensive games and pitching was okay. In game two, [Heath] Goin gives up five earned runs but the key play in the game was a fly ball to center that would have ended the inning that got into the sun and [Joe] Scaperotta couldn't get clear of it. So it goes down in the record book as a triple, and it was scored appropriately, but there's not a category for balls in the sun. So they can either error it or hit it, most of the time they give it a hit, that's just the way it is. But that play, at the same time, my belief is that outfielders, all they have to do is change their angle a little bit to keep the ball out of the sun. But sometimes when they track the ball that's just the angle that it ends up and and so it was a bit unlucky break that got them back in the game. But again we pitched well enough and hit well enough to hold on and win it and get the first two of the series.
Sunday's game, Jason Connor comes back to the mound after a year off with surgery and just couldn't throw strikes. He walked the first three guys and gives up a hit and ends up walking five or six in the inning and ends up giving up seven runs, we down seven runs after the top of the first. We managed to get one in the bottom of the first, which is important. When you give up a big inning you've gotta come back and score at least one. It's an attempt to stop the opponents momentum a little bit. Then we go back in the second and give up two more so we're down 9-1. But this is where I thought this offense would be and that's what I thought they could do. It was a unique combination yesterday [Sunday] of about 10% humidity and I've found out here that winds are much less of a factor than the humidity levels. I've seen days here where the wind is blowing in but the humidity levels are real low and the ball explodes. And the other way around as well, humidity's up and the wind blowing but the ball doesn't seem to carry as well. But it was a combination of light winds, about five to ten, but they were blowing out to left which I think benefitted their club a little more than mine. They're a little bit more right-handed than we are and then the humidity levels were real low and they ended up hitting six home runs in the dadgum game. We hit two.
But it's the same thing, we came from behind, we put up a big inning, got the lead, then we gave up three home runs in the sixth, three out of four hitters. We gave up back to back home runs, then get a guy out, then another guy hits a home run and all of the sudden we're trailing again. Then in the bottom of the sixth we get a couple guys on and [Chris] Auten hits an absolute monster home run to center, a great at bat.
The great thing about this weekend is when you look back at it, and my pitching coach isn't real happy about the weekend and I'm not real happy about how we played defense overall as a team, but we also showed, when you score 40 runs against a team like New Orleans, that shows signs of a great offensive ballclub. More than anything is that we did it ahead in the game score, behind in the game score, guys had a lot of key at bats where they could have been pressure at bats and most cases we came through. Prior to Auten's home run, as part of the seven run inning, [Bryan] Marquez hits a grand slam to right, across the wind, that got no help from the wind, that he hit over the trees in right, opposite field and it was with two strikes. Those types of at bats really get hitters going, it gives them a lot of confidence, it gives you a lot of confidence in what each guy can do. I think we gained an awful lot this weekend in those areas. Obviously after any first opening weekend, whether you win all three or lose all three, everybody knows that there's going to be things you gotta go back and work on that you thought you were okay on but you weren't. So overall, it was clearly it was a successful weekend against a very good opening opponent. Probably the best opponent we've had since I've been here. And so it was a success.
I'm disappointed as heck. We had a chance to sweep it and we should have. We did everything we could do, if we had just gotten a couple hitters, if we made a couple better pitches later in the game. I thought we were sloppy out of the bullpen in the latter part of the game with pitches. I think we gave them a lot of good pitches to hit when we didn't have to. They're a very very aggressive team, they'll get patient and draw a walk if you throw two pitches significantly out of the zone but if you keep around the zone they'll swing the bat. I just thought we just threw them too many good pitches to hit. Part of it was the fact that again, in the first series you've got a bunch of guys that are going into Division I game, Division I mound for the very first time. I know Joustra in his close on Saturday, I don't think he had any color left in his face by the time he left the mound. It surprised me a little bit because the guy's really a calm kid. But you could see how nervous he was. He fought through it and did a good job. And then he pitched again on Sunday and didn't have quite as good of stuff. Pitchers left a lot of balls up in the zone.
I think what happens sometimes at our field on a day like that where the ball carries well. Balls off the end of the bat do not go out of our ballpark, regardless of what Baseball America says. They have to be hit. It's a fair park. What happens on days like that, well hit fly balls go out, they go out. They don't go to the warning track, they don't go to the wall, they turn doubles into home runs. Sometimes the pitching staff, they get a little shell shocked. Both clubs were. They try to overthrow the ball. When you throw it harder and you throw it in the middle of the plate, you just make the ball go further, they don't get it. It's as simple as that. You still have to hit location, you have to change speeds. The whole effort of the college pitcher, everybody thinks the strikeout is a big deal and sure there's a lot of value in it. Keeping the ball off the hitter's barrel, enticing him to swing at pitches he doesn't hit well. Put the ball in play off the end of the bat or off the grip of the bat is what you're trying to do, let your defense work. We did not do a good job of that at all in the last three innings. We got ourselves in trouble in the game through the walk. So did New Orleans. They walked 17 of us, 17 guys which equates to the number of runs they gave us. It was one of those games, we only had eight hits or nine hits in the game but it was because they were throwing the ball all over the place. Obviously it never benefits the pitcher to walk guys but when the general pitching staff is wild, it's hard for hitters, they start expecting balls instead of strikes. Sometimes it makes it a little more difficult.
Power pitchers can benefit from controlled uncontrol. Pitchers can get themselves in trouble by throwing too many strikes, hitters expect it to be around the zone and are prepared. On the other side, throwing pitches, a couple wild here and there is not bad because it keeps the hitters loose in the box. Being hit by a 90mph fastball in the ribs is not real fun for anybody. Nolan Ryan pitched his entire career as a very very respectful man but he pitched to the hitter's fears and he pitched inside and he benefitted from those things.
They didn't do that on purpose but as a result I understand how difficult it is for hitters to sit in the box and hit when there aren't very many strikes thrown. But overall we handled the situations well.
bc.net: Can you talk about the play that Chris Auten made in on a line drive grounder in game two, top of the 8th with runners on and two outs when New Orleans had taken a one run lead and were looking to add some more runs?
RW: It was a corner reaction play which sometimes an athlete gets a little more credit for than he deserves, there's no thinking to it, you just react. He was holding a runner, there were runners at first and third and so he's holding the runner, he has to check for the pickoff and come off the bag and look for the bat. That made it such a great play, he had to come off the bag prepared to make the play and the ball was just smoked to his left and he reversed his track and made a dive to his left once the glove play was made he just kind of crawled over touched bag and it was over. It was a game winning play. It demoralizes the opponent. They did exactly they were supposed to do, they hit a rocket and we make a play and you're kind of thinking what more can you do? So that's kind of what baseball is. It did Chris some good because he didn't handle some pickoff plays the first couple days and from the angle we have in the dugout I could not tell if the throw was really bad or if my first baseman didn't run it very well, I think it was a little combination of both. It was good for him and with him teammates to make the play.
In the spring we weren't sure how good a defender Chris was going to be and after playing through the first three weeks he's a big guy that covers a lot of range on the ball is in the air from defenders. He's getting better on the ball in the dirt and obviously he started there because we thought he was prepared. If he keeps playing at that level as a first baseman and he keep swinging the bat like he's gonna be, we might very well have a guy that's got a chance at an All Conference selection. We've got a lot of baseball to play but he's got the physical skill to do that so that bodes well for us.
bc.net: Being able to win the first two games of the series, coming from behind, can you talk about the confidence that it gives you early on?
RW: It's a big deal. In fact in all three games we led, gave up the lead twice. When you do this it feels like you have to win the same game two or three different times. It's a very difficult thing to do emotionally. That's why I give New Orleans an awful lot of credit because we came up on the top side in the first two and they had a big lead and we came storming back and most ball clubs, the thing's over. But they turned the tables and did the same thing back to us. That's Tom Walter and his people, I've got an awful lot of respect for him. Not only are we very close friends but we respect each other coaching wise because our kids play hard and that's what you're looking for. His kids didn't give up. Of course Tommy got ejected about the third or fourth inning about the time we were making a run.
In 2003 when we won 43 games, Sean Johnson was our SID at the time, he brought up that we had won 29 games coming from behind, where we trailed at one point in time. And it was the personality of that team. I remember several times, saying "guys can we not keep a lead, can we maybe win a game like 10-2 once?" The deal is that the leader in any contest has the advantage. It's always been that way. It burned us on Sunday, once we got the lead we couldn't hold it, twice. Again, it was a great weekend for a new ballclub, for the new players because those are the types of games that you're gonna have. Rarely three like that in one weekend. But those are the types of games you're going to have in conference series where you have to find a way to win. Those are the difference making games. Two out of three we found a way to win.
bc.net: Can you talk about the upcoming series against Ball State? They went 2-2 in their opening series, what kind of ball club are they?
RW: They were on the road at Alabama-Birmingham, they've historically been a pretty good team. I think both teams were a little bit down a year ago. I really don't know much about them. I would fully expect that they aren't the offensive ballclub that New Orleans was. I think their pitching staff will be reasonable and again we'll approach the four games, it'll be the first time that we have a four game set. That's the only thing that's disappointing about the New Orleans series. When we first talked to them we talked to them about playing a four game set because that's what we're going to be doing all year. They just didn't have an extra game available to do it. So we didn't get in all the guys we wanted to get in this weekend. There are two or three pretty good players who didn't even get in. We'll have the opportunity to manage the four game set a little bit which is different management of your pitching staff. But it's also a very different management of your position players and you're looking to try to make sure you keep everybody fresh. I'm looking forward to that challenge.
It won't be as good an offensive club as New Orleans, that's something that will maybe give my pitchers a weekend to get their numbers back. You know everybody's tied to their batting average and ERA and there are a couple guys with big albatrosses around their necks walking around campus. That's really the way you feel. And good players can't wait to get back out on the field and get their numbers fixed. The bottom line is my pitching staff has faced our offense for three weeks which is obviously outstanding, then they get the New Orleans offense which is obviously outstanding and the New Orleans team has about the same players who hit 90 home runs a year ago which put them in the Top 10 in the country. They're missing a couple guys but I think they replaced them pretty well.
So I think that at least the pitching staff can feel like it's a club that they got a chance against and they're not gonna get hurt. We've got three practice days, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, to get prepared for it. Two real practices days, Thursday is a real light day where you're prepping for the games and trying to stay light on the bodies so they're fresh. But we'll spend a lot of time dealing with our pickoff systems and more than anything holding runners. We gave up 17 stolen bases in one weekend and that's a little alarming. I hope that New Orleans is as good a running ballclub as I think they might to be. But I'm not so sure. The only time we really handled their running game is when they tried a first and third stolen base play with two outs and we threw a guy out at the plate in a contested call. I thought my catcher did a great job of blocking the plate I don't think the runner ever got there. Coach Walter that evening when we were having dinner insisted that he did.
So we're going to have to work on pitchers holding runners a little bit better, we can't just let people run wild like that. The good thing about it is the Sun Belt is a little bit more of a running league than the WAC is. The WAC, we'll run in certain situations but we're not a big base stealing league so we don't have to worry about that a whole lot.
bc.net: What are your rotations going to look like for this upcoming series?
RW: It'll be Sebastian Vendette on Friday, Oliver Webster in game one on Saturday, Tyler Sturdevant in game two on Saturday and then Heath Goin on Sunday.
From there we get into the mess. From there we get into six games in six days at Fresno, we come right off that into two against New Mexico and then off that we open the league against San Jose. When you really look at it, we've got 12 games in what will be pretty close to 12 days, so 12 games in two weeks. On that you could stay with the four man rotation but you'll end up short resting a guy or two and early in the season there's not much reason to do that. We'll probably deal with a five man rotation. There's three or four different guys that can serve in starting roles as well as the roles they're already in. We'll see how it works out.
bc.net: Will you be facing any left handed pitchers in this series?
RW: We haven't looked at that yet. A big problem we had a year ago is we were terrible against left-handed pitchers. I mean everybody's left-hander got us. They brought the #14 guy on the staff who never pitches but as long as he was left-handed he came against us. But I'm looking forward to the first time we get to go against a left-hander because I think I can line up about eight right-handed hitters that are going to be pretty tough to get out. I think eventually even with some of our stars being left-handed hitters, I might be eventually a better club against left-handed pitchers this year.
I don't think they [Ball State] had anybody get real blown up so there's no reason to think they'd change up [their rotation] this early.
You get real concerned about the psyche of your pitchers, one outing, you can't judge them on. Or you shouldn't, most coaches don't want to do that. They've spent six months earning the right, one bad outing shouldn't negate the six months. And that's the way most coaches look at it. Most of us have physically trained these guys to be starters and middle relievers and closers. You train guys on 80, 100 pitches, you train them on 40 and 60 and you train them on 20 and 40. And that's kind of what their bodies are prepped to do for you. And so you make too many changes early and you change the conditions the pitchers are in. I expect they'll give us the same rotation.