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 last week's games against CSU-Pueblo and Nevada and looks ahead at this week's games against Hawai'i-Pacific and Hawai'i and talks about the keys to winning this weekend's series against Hawai'i.
bleedCrimson.net: Can you talk a little bit about this last week's games against CSU-Pueblo and the weekend series against Nevada?
Rocky Ward: The games against Pueblo were kind of a microcosm of what we've done. You win easily and then lose easily. Those two games were more about getting some kids healthy. Stout didn't play in that series, Hardt played a little bit but sparingly. We were trying to get some of our depth developed a little bit and at the same time give a couple kids on the mound a chance, who haven't pitched very well and give them a chance to get some activity. They were specifically scheduled for that. You kind of expect to win them both but Pueblo played good baseball in the second game and did a good job against us and you tip your hat to them.
As far as the Nevada series we got a great pitching performance out of [Tyler] Sturdevant in game one and scored enough to win. We actually had an outstanding performance out of [Heath] Goin, not quite as good as Sturdevant. We just were not very good in the doubleheader against Nevada, offensively. They played very very good defense. They made three or four really critical defensive plays on the plus side, stopped a couple of our offensive innings and gave them some momentum. Goin went eight innings and gave up seven earned runs, you look at the game and say well he didn't play real well, he kinda did. Once they got on top the wind was blowing and it was cold and the conditions were not very good. They happened to be the team to get a couple balls up in the air into the jetstream, we just couldn't get that done. Then Vendette pitched outstandingly in game three and the bullpen failed us. We got a five two lead in the eight and we give up a big seven spot in the bottom of the eighth inning. Again you've gotta give some credit to Nevada. Nevada's a very difficult team to play on the road. They've a very good home team, they always have been. They have very nice crowds, they have good expectations.
I've seen Fresno and I've seen San Jose, I have a general idea of what Hawai'i is, I haven't seen Sacramento but they have a lot of the same players. I think Nevada might very well be the best team in the league right now. It depends on how well they play on the road. That's been kind of their achilles heel as it has been ours to a certain extent. The WAC as a league, there haven't been a whole lot of teams who have terribly good road records, especially in conference. Historically our road record has been average. There are a lot of reasons for the history of that. Early on when our budgets were low, we kind of stacked our kids up and stayed in bad hotels and our travel was really difficult, that's no longer an excuse. They've funded us to a point where we travel comfortably. History and precedent and when precedent is set is kind of hard to break through. Hawai'i has never been a good road team, Fresno's not a good road team, I don't know if there are any teams in the league that are considered good road teams with maybe the exception of Sacramento who's better on the road sometimes than they are at home.
bc.net: When we talked last week you were kind of expecting to see some higher offensive scores and you ended up playing what you would consider normal scoring games. Can you talk about being able to play that more defensive style of baseball?
RW: When you start the day you expect to score in double figures because historically that's what we've done and so even after this weekend we're 4th in the nation in runs scored. Yeah it's a little bit more difficult to deal with and I'm concerned with that going into the weekend but most of the concern has been our inconsistency on defense. That's where it really shows up in low run scoring games. The difference sometimes is a play that is made or not made. We really played quality defense this weekend. It really didn't have that much to do with it. There were four really good quality baseball games. We've talked a bit about some games we thought we've given away this year. The first game on Saturday, the first half of the doubleheader, we had a chance to win it but that was the first game I really felt like the opponent and their performance beat us. They played better. Neither team played bad. That was the first game this season I thought we got beat because the other team played better. In game two, probably the same thing applies, I'm just disappointed in the fact that we've got a 5-2 lead in the 8th and we had a chance to really blow it open in the top of the 8th, we had the bases loaded and we hit a couple balls hard but none of them go through and we don't score. That leads to a momentum shift, sometimes you're better off with a 5-2 lead to go down 1-2-3 than you are to challenge an inning and not succeed. If you had your choice, you'd rather your three guys strike out and not provide any momentum than you would if you got the bases loaded and not score. Now obviously what we want to do is get the bases loaded and somebody hit the ball out of the yard and then you're sitting at 9-2 in the bottom of the eighth and the game's over. In either game we didn't get that final offensive blow and as a result we only end up scoring 4 and 5 runs where we felt like we had opportunities in both to score eight or nine or ten. Again the wind conditions ended up working against us.
Am I concerned? Not overly because I don't think we lost those games because we played poorly. Ithink we lost those games because baseball breaks went against us a little bit and Nevada did a little bit better job of taking care of their opportunities. Now in game four, we didn't get a very good pitching performance out of Kent Williamson but there have been a lot of games played that were 11-1, 12-3, lopsided by eight or nine runs and a lot of that comes down to the fourth game of the series or what ended up being our sixth game of the week. Your pitching staffs are depleted and you're also emotionally tired. It was a pretty emotional doubleheader the day before and I talked to my kids about it and we talked about the importance of playing well early. We had a couple opportunities to score early we hit a couple balls to the warning track that the wind knocked down and they were ones that ended up scoring first and they kind of went with the momentum and didn't let us up. You lose three out of four in a row you're not happy with it but there are a lot of good things that happened in the trip. We played real good quality defense, Stout played all four games and was outstanding. Scaperotta's numbers don't look good but he absolutely crushed five balls that ended being caught because of the conditions. Auten played pretty well. We had Marquez, Crouthamel and Heineman and some of those kids did have very good series with the bat but they weren't as bad as what it looks like on paper. They hit some balls hard. We played on this field-turf field so it's artificial turf but it's really slow. You gotta really hit the ball hard for it to go through the infield. You gotta hit the ball hard and you gotta hit it in the right spot. We both benefitted from it but I think they ended up with, when it comes down to baseball luck, an additional eight basehits in the series that were groundballs that went through the infield and we didn't get those. Am I disappointed? Yeah. After game one you're at the top by yourself as the WAC leader and now after game four we're in fourth in the league. We felt like we had a chance to establish ourselves at the top of the league, very much like Sacramento did going to La. Tech and winning three. They're now 8-3 at the top of the heap. So it makes the Hawai'i series a little bit more important to us.
We went with Williamson as more of a power pitcher on Sunday, I think we might come back to Webster who's more of a low velocity command pitcher, throws lots of strikes. Hawai'i has very little power, they run real well, they put the ball in play. If you look at the statistics, they score a run per two hits. They almost have to get two or three hits an inning to score because they just don't have that many doubles, triples and home runs. If you look at ours we score more runs than we have hits or pretty close.
The key to them for this upcoming weekend is not to give up any free stuff. Play them a lot like we did San Jose. Get the first hitter out where they can't hit and run, they can't bunt, they can't put on plays to try to score. To get out those type of offenses, you get out the leadoff guy then pretty much the only way they can score is with three straight hits. If they get the leadoff guy and bunt him over then they can score with one hit, they're just not going to hit the ball out in the gaps very much. We will change our 26 man roster a little bit. We were able to bring a couple guys extra on the road. Justin Lucero who's a defensive specialist is likely to be on that roster just for the Hawai'i trip. Geoff Downing's on the road with us as well as a guy who hasn't got as much playing time as a couple of the others have because he hasn't shown the ability to hit for as much power as the other guys but power's not going to be important. He's more of a line drive hitter and he runs pretty good so he kind of fits the field. So we'll change the roster just a bit to help us deal with conditions in Hawai'i.
bc.net: Can you a little bit about your game on Wednesday against Hawai'i-Pacific and would prefer to have a non-league game between the Nevada and Hawai'i series or would you have rather jumped back into league play?
RW: When I first scheduled it I was really concerned about it but what it does for us right now having lost three out of four, and this isn't a guaranteed win, this is a good baseball team, this will be a better team than Pueblo. Once again it'll give me a chance to get a couple backup players an opportunity to start and get a couple at bats under their belts that might lead to a pinch hit basehit that might win a game for us against Hawai'i. It may lead into a late defensive replacement, a play that wins the game, that sort of thing. Right now I think it's great that we're playing. We'll be able to rest a couple of different guys that need rest. Scaperotta, we'll see what we do with Hardt, we may rest him. Hardt, Scaperotta and Stout have all been hampered with some injuries and both Hardt and Stout really came out of the weekend feeling good so we may be past theirs. Scaperotta's got this high quad pull that's really bothering him. This may be the first opportunity I have because Lucero's on the roster I can play Justin as a center fielder against Hawai'i-Pacific and get him back active because he's gotten limited playing time of late.
bc.net: You mentioned you've got a lot of guys who haven't been to Hawai'i, does having this game also help with getting them acclimated to the weather conditions, the wind and all that as well?
RW: Yeah. There's no question about it. One of the biggest advantages Hawai'i has always had is obviously the jet lag of teams going in there and trying to get their bodies adjusted to a four hour difference in time. For those people out there who haven't traveled as much, just Daylight Savings time takes a while to get used to and that's only an hour difference. It's really important in that regard. We did it for a lot of different reasons one was the fact that we were already in Reno and one of them was financial, it saved us a whole lot of money not having to fly back from Reno. More than anything, if we were flying back today [Monday], then you've got basically Tuesday and Wednesday at home and then you're back on a flight Thursday, traveling all day and then trying to play on Friday or traveling on Wednesday trying to play on Thursday. We're lucky that Hawai'i-Pacific had a game open that they could play us. It'll make a bigger difference. It'll give us two or three days there to practice, play a game, get accustomed to the time change but also to go from Reno where we played in wind chills of 39, it was cold there. There were some innings that we played where it was downright miserable and then to turn around and go to Hawai'i where there's high humidity and 80 degrees. I think it's extraordinarily important that we did it this way to give guys a chance to get used to the head and humidity that we haven't dealt with. It's one of the quiet disadvantages, we have plenty heat in Las Cruces just not the humidity combination and that can raise havoc with cramps and stuff like that. Guys need a couple of days for their bodies to get accustomed to that and you just lose more fluids when you play. The good thing is, I just found out, Hawai'i used to have an old Astroturf surface and that gets hot and it's hard on your body. A lot of guys end up with muscle and leg problems but they changed that out to field turf so they have the same surface that we just played on in Reno. That's a big deal. That'll make it a lot better physically on my kids.
bc.net: Talk a little bit about this Hawai'i series. It's obviously an important series to try to keep you on the top half of the league.
RW: It's important in a few ways. You're trying to re-establish a little bit of what we lost in the Reno series. If you can go in and find a way to win three out of four then you feel really great about the trip as a whole. You feel like it was okay. More than anything, Hawai'i is one of those teams that we play on the road and at home as well as Fresno. Establishing an advantage over them right now is pretty important because the series we have with them in another three or four weeks at home, you'd like to have already taken care of them at their place. There's a psychological advantage that you're working for. It's important in short term and in long term.
The one thing about it is tradition in sports is pretty unique. Only real sports fans understand that. Here's an example. Last weekend #25 Oklahoma State goes into #8 Missouri and sweeps them. Why'd that happen? Oklahoma State played better than Missouri. But you've gotta go deeper than that. In all the years that dad coached at Oklahoma State, Missouri hardly ever beat us, now matter how good they were. There's a huge tradition of Oklahoma State beating Missouri no matter how good either team is. We have a little bit of that with Nevada. Nevada is 24-8 against us. It's not been a team that we've played very well against. I think we took the job we had only beaten them twice in school history so at least I've got six of those wins. At least we're trying to work on breaking that up. Hawai'i is a team the last couple of years we've played well against. They beat us two out of three at their place but we weren't very good two years ago. We had lost all those players at that time. We were playing pretty much with a JV team against their guys and to beat them like we did was a big emotional win for the kids. Then we beat them two out of three here last year. It kind of gave us a chance to get back into the middle of the race. I think they kind of look at us as their nemesis.