The Aggie baseball team are WAC regular season champions. New Mexico State finished off San Jose State yesterday afternoon winning 15-2 in a run-rule shortened seven inning game. It's the Aggies' first regular season championship and the second step towards earning an NCAA Regional bid (the first step was completing a successful non-conference season against this schedule which they did). We asked Coach Ward for his thoughts on the regular season title, "Regular season champions, it just puts you in a different classification," said Ward after the win. "People look at you differently after you've been a champion and it changes recruiting, it just changes a lot of things. It just gives you a badge of honor that you get to wear around the rest of your life."
"I'm a big guy on firsts and I think the hardest thing to do is to do anything the first time. We've done a ton of first things in New Mexico State baseball history and to add another thing is great. We already have a conference tournament championship but to add a regular season championship and really that's probably more impressive because it's less random. It's over the course of the whole season."
Yesterday's championship clinching win was also important for several other reasons. First and most importantly is it gives the Aggies a first round bye and an extra day of rest. This is an Aggie ball club that has played eight games in the last nine days with just two days off, Monday and Thursday. The Aggies' pitching staff and in particular senior closer Scott Coffman (9.1 IP in that stretch) needed the rest. It also gives the Aggies an extra day of rest for shortstop Zach Voight to rehab his ankle.
We spoke with Coach Ward after yesterday's win and that the feeling with the club was the polar opposite of how they felt after the loss to UNM on Tuesday night in which he felt like the team had lost out on something special with a chance to tie the Rio Grande Rivalry standings, win his 400th game, sweep the in-state rivals. "There was a whole bunch to gain. Had we lost this game we would have been the four seed and had to play on Wednesday instead of Thursday. There was just a whole bunch on the line and in order to get it and be the WAC champion, that's a big deal," said Ward. "But more than anything to give us an extra days rest, to give us the advantage in the tournament, to put us in the premiere game on Thursday night. "
Back to the Aggies' situation at shortstop. We really cannot say enough about the way Bryce Griffin has stepped in and played in Zach Voight's absence. Not only has Griffin played outstandingly on defense, he has proven that he won't be an easy out at the bottom of the lineup. From Tuesday through yesterday's game against SJSU Griffin is 5-for-16 (.313) with two RBIs, two walks and at least one sacrifice bunt. Any manager in the country would take that from their nine-hole hitter, guaranteed.
"He's given us a great run," said Coach Ward. "He's played real quality defense which is what his job was and today he has a breakthrough day with the bat and had some key base hits. I'm really, really proud of the kid. It's very difficult to sit and not get very much playing time because Zach is one of our best players and to have to fill those shoes... He did a great job in those games."
Griffin's performance over the past week has also strengthened the team from the standpoint that the Aggies feel like even if Zach Voight re-injures his ankle (which we certainly hope will not be the case) they won't see too much of a drop-off. "Voight wanted to play today and was probably playable but I said, "No, the kid's [Griffin] been doing exactly what I wanted him to do and if he can play with Griffin another game, he's earned the right to and I can give you three or four more days rest then that will mean a lot to us."", said Ward. "That's exactly what we were able to do. Not only did he come in and fill a hole, you feel like that if Zach goes and twists it again, we're not going to miss a beat in a conference tournament or regional tournament. We're very, very pleased with what Bryce Griffin was able to do and he can be very, very proud of himself."
In winning their share of the regular season title the Aggies played just about as well as they could have played. In four games in California (including the non-conference tilt against CSU-Bakersfield) the Aggies did not trail at any point in the four games and they led for 32 of the 34 innings they played with only the first two innings yesterday being the exception (0-0 tie through two). If anyone thinks that the Aggies backed into their title they are sorely mistaken. The Aggies had to do one of the most difficult things in baseball and that is to sweep a road series in conference play. They had to win when everything was on the line. You can ask Nevada and Hawai'i how easy that is. All Hawai'i had to do was win a couple games at Sacramento State two weekends ago but they were swept. All Nevada had to do was win on Saturday night and they would have been solo champions but instead they lost 8-3.
After a three-week battle that saw the Aggies lose nine out of ten games, New Mexico State very well may be the hottest team in the league heading into the tournament. They've won four in a row and five out of their last seven games and some of the players that might have been slumping are now suddenly red-hot.
"You just feel like all the things that you talk about-- getting momentum going into the tournament, meeting the goals we had at the beginning of the year, it all happened and all came down to one game," said Ward. "It was really an all-or-nothing type game much like a conference championship game or regional championship game might be."
"We had four or five hitters that were really struggling. We feel like those guys, Phillips, Lecount, Snowley, Rust, all of those guys got themselves healthy," said Ward. "They all had key base hits and key defensive plays over the last few days."
The Aggies won't know their opponent until late Wednesday night. The top seed in the tournament gets the lowest remaining seed in the winner's bracket. They could get one of three opponents, 6-seed Louisiana Tech, 5-seed Fresno State or 4-seed Hawai'i. The one opponent they won't get is 3-seed Nevada. Sacramento State, the 2-seed, will draw the highest remaining team in the winner's bracket from Wednesday's games.
Going back to the importance of yesterday's win it gives the Aggies the ability to throw Ryan Beck on Thursday (nearly a full week of rest) and then they have the option of either throwing Adam Mott or Michael Ormseth (who only had to throw 70 pitches yesterday) depending on their opponent on Friday.
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