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 talks about last week's disappointing series against Fresno State, looks ahead at a very tough week traveling to Lubbock, TX, Roswell, N.M. and Sacramento, CA in a three day span, and talks about his kids' performance against Top 10 pro prospect Tanner Scheppers.
bleedCrimson.net: Talk a about the weekend series with Fresno State. In the Friday night game you put up a good fight, how much did that game have an effect on what happened with the rest of the series?
Rocky Ward: I think had an effect in the fact that Fresno got off to a good start offensively. The one achilles heel for them has been their offense. They've been either really really good or really really bad, there's not much in between with those guys. Unfortunately they were really really good all weekend.
Combined with a pretty average or below average performance from my pitching staff, we walked a bunch of guys, didn't have very good command and we built a lot of innings for them. We didn't make them earn a lot of stuff that they got. Once they got going, once we walked a guy or hit a guy, then they'd finish it with base hits. We seemed to consistently provide them with opportunities throughout the weekend and they got on a roll and we couldn't get them stopped. So yeah, game on impacted it that way.
I think to put up 10 runs against that pitching staff was quite an accomplishment. It was a normal day, it wasn't a windy day, it was light winds under 5 mph throughout the game. The score wasn't high because of the wind. Both offenses did a pretty good job and they took advantage of most every mistake.
Fresno came in hot and they've now won nine or ten conference games in a row and their offense, if you go back and look at the numbers the past two or three weeks, their offense has scored a lot of runs.
We know how to pitch these guys, our pitchers just didn't execute. We have a pretty good book on them. A good example is Mendonca their third baseman. He leads the country in strikeouts but he had six home runs going in, he hit three more this weekend. He's a unique left handed hitter in that he's really a pure breaking ball hitter. He hits the curveball but his biggest problem is you don't have to throw the guy strikes, he swings at everything. It was just amazing how many times we called the breaking ball in the dirt and he's one of those hitters if you throw the breaking ball in the dirt, he'll swing and miss it, if you throw it over the plate, he might hit it out. He's just smart enough and a mature enough hitter to make adjustments. If you just go at him with the fastball, that was a little bit of the problem too, we just didn't have very good command of our fastball, we didn't throw it for strikes as much as we should. A guy comes in hitting .222, he hits three home runs and drives a bunch of runs in and he had to have been about 12 for 18 but the five or six times we got him out were strikeouts. So he either doubled, homered or struck out. That may be kind of the essence of the series. This is a guy that hit that we know how to pitch and our pitching staff just couldn't locate properly.
We still had a little bit of the same old problems with not very consistent defense, made some mistakes defensively with the error and advancement type things. Overall on the weekend, game one, we should have won. You should be able to score 10 runs at home and win. I still felt good about Saturday because we had Goin and Sturdevant on the mound who had been really really good the last three or four outings and they were below average. Once Fresno got the momentum we couldn't get it back and they're a very talented club and clearly established themselves after this weekend as the best team in the league.
bc.net: In the first game facing Tanner Scheppers, he came into the game averaging two earned runs for every nine innings pitched had only given up 18 walks and you guys get to him for six earned runs and five walks in five innings. Can you talk about that and that showing the potential that your club has?
RW: When we're good we're very disciplined. We don't swing at bad pitches out of the zone. If a guy goes and throws three or four good pitches, sliders on the corners or fastballs inside on the corner, when we're going real good we don't put those balls in play, we're not going to get basehits out of them, but we foul them off. We really did a good job with him early in the game drawing walks. You're not attempting to walk, you're fighting off his pitches until you either get a hit or he runs out of balls and throws ball four. We really did a good job. I was really proud of my offense that day. I don't want to lose sight of that and I don't want my ballclub to lose sight of it. It was a disappointment because we thought if we'd gotten any reasonable performance on the mound that game would have easily been ours. So we were disappointed by that. I was really happy with what our offense did.
The next day we lost a little bit of that. I think with [Heath] Goin and [Tyler] Sturdevant on the mound we lost that edge. I talked to them after that doubleheader and said "Guys we don't have days off as offensive people. You've got to go battle for every single pitch." That's the only way we have a chance to be a competitive ballclub. You can't take days off, especially as an offense. You can't sit back and say "Goin, he's won four out of his last five and he's gonna pitch great, we don't have to score very many runs for him." Well, part of the reason he's had a lot of success is we've scored a lot of runs and we've scored a lot of runs early for him and we didn't do that in the second game. Wilson was outstanding for them. In fact both kids pitched just fabulously. But we let them do it a little bit more than we did with Scheppers. We went to war with Scheppers, he was the marquee guy and we went after him and battled every inch of the way. We did not do that type of job the next two days. We've got to do a better job in the next three or four series in maintaining that emotional tenacity as offensive players.
So yeah, I'm very proud of what we did with Scheppers, we just didn't replicate it the next day.
bc.net: Talk a little bit about this long week you guys have, you play Tuesday in Lubbock, Wednesday in Roswell, travel Thursday for Sacramento and then play Friday, two Saturday and one Sunday.
RW: We've been calling hell week ever since we put it on the schedule, it's a tough time. We've got to drive over to Lubbock and play tomorrow night. We'll stay the night, get up in the morning, go to Roswell. Play a game late afternoon there, drive in that night, get in around 11:00 p.m. and basically get about six hours of sleep, get up the next morning and get up and go to Sacramento.
Tech's been a good, consistent year-in, year-out non-conference opponent. We've played pretty well historically against them. The Roswell game, you'd like to have that game at home but it's got a lot of benefit. There are a lot of Aggie fans in the eastern part of the state and it's good. This is the third year we'll play Tech at Roswell and it's well worth doing. It's been a neat event for the kids and the fans.
This one will be a little more difficult to pull of but sometimes after you have a tough series at home, it's kinda good to leave. Get away for a day or two. More than anything, the Sacramento series is extremely important to us. We opened the league winning three out of four, then lost three out of four [at Nevada], lost three out of four [at Hawai'i] and then lost all four. We're not in a real good run in league, sitting at 5-11 we're staying above water only because Louisiana Tech is 2-16. We've said all along that the goal is to play in the middle of the league if we can. If we can't then to find a way to get in the conference tournament. If the seedings were set today we'd open the first round against Fresno. Guess who we'd get? We'd get Tanner Scheppers [Friday night's game one starting pitcher]. We put six earned runs on him in five innings. We get to face him again in couple weeks. But if you start the tournament right now, 1 vs. 6, I'm not sure that's a walkover for them. I've been there before, the first conference championship we were a 6-seed, of course it was an eight team tournament so we weren't playing the 1-seed to open but we did play against the 3-seed to open, won that game and drew the 1-seed in the second round and beat them. Eventually you've got to play that guy may as well do it right off the bat and put him in the losers bracket. Now that's not necessarily where we're playing to be. We're hopeful that we'll play our way back up the WAC standings over the next two or three weeks.
I think Sacramento's really important they've obviously played very well, they're 10-5 in league and they were the league leader before this last weekend. Sacramento's not been a team we've historically played well against. Then again historically they haven't been a team you get excited about playing. They've always kind of been a bottom of the league guy. Well, this is a different dynamic. They're at the top of the league and it's apparent to anybody that's around the program that it's an important series for us to go there and play well.
bc.net: What are you looking to get out of the next couple games against Texas Tech before you head into the next two weekends where you're playing the top two teams in the league?
RW: The Tech games are unique. [Richard] Stout hurt his leg again this week in Sunday's game, he was going to turn a double into a triple and he pulled up at second base with a hamstring problem again. He'll stay at home for the Tech trip. More than anything we're looking for a couple more pitchers we can trust. Guys who haven't thrown as much as of late will get a chance to throw against Tech. We're also looking for two or three hitters that haven't gone well, [Gavin] Heineman and [Colin] Crouthamel along with a few more at bats for Lucero who's become a full time starter but still only has 20-some at-bats. Maybe also try to get Lopez and Downing a few more at bats, see if one or two of those guys can provide us with another offensive threat over the next couple of weeks. You're going to see a few different lineups. [Joe] Scaperotta, Tyler] Hardt, [Chris] Auten and [Joe] Leghorn are going to be with us in Lubbock and they'll be in the lineup, the top five or six guys will still be there but we'll use the 7, 8, 9-holes to get some guys a little bit more time. A good example of that is Leo Aguirre who didn't play a whole lot early in the season and these are the types of games we've got a chance to play and he's about 6 for his last 10 with a couple home runs and a couple doubles stretching back to Hawai'i-Pacific. He got a start in that game, went 1 for 4 but hit four rockets. You're looking for another guy like that to bring himself in as a useable player both as a bench player and as a spot starter.
bc.net: Going back to the Hawai'i and Fresno State series, you look Justin Lucero with you and he had a couple of good series. What does he bring to the team, not just with his defense which is what you took him to Hawai'i for, but what he's been able to do for you on offensive?
RW: What he did for us at Hawai'i, Hawai'i was the plan, that made all kind of sense. We needed a guy in center that could cover a whole lot of ground, gave us a chance to play Scaperotta in left where he didn't have to put so much strain on his pulled quad. What he did in Hawai'i is he got on base. He had a big basehit that kind of solidified the win we got there. That was his only hit in the series, he's currently hitting about .120 or something like that. It's hard to stay in the lineup when nine out of ten times you're out as far as at bats but his On-Base-Percentage is over .400 and .400 as far as OBP is a marquee number. Through hit batsmen and walks and stuff like that, he's become valuable. So you kind of say, if a guy goes 0 for 3 and he walks once and scores a run, it's really a 1 for 4 type day and I gotta think defensively he'll make a play that'll take away a run from somebody on a consistent basis. You kind of say well the end result of this, if you want to put it an offensive numbers, the guy's worth a couple runs a game regardless of what his batting average is. We stayed with him against Fresno and pretty much the same thing occurred. He played really outstanding defense, he plays hard every day, he's been kind of a real quiet motivator to some of these kids. It's made Scaperotta much better because Scap does have to cover as much range. Scaperotta is a good center fielder, he's an outstanding left fielder. So I don't have any plans to make much change in that. It was easier to do because I could move Tyler Hardt to the DH spot because Colin Crouthamel was going bad. If Colin had maintained the pace, hitting .300 with an average of a home run or so and four or five RBIs a weekend, it would have been hard to do but he'd really gone into a tough stretch. To be honest, Colin's numbers haven't been any better than what Lucero's numbers have been the last eight games. So we'll see. I've talked to Colin and a couple of the other guys who aren't doing well and said this is where we are now. If you want to get more playing time then you're going to have to prove to me that your offensive prowess is of more value than the combination of Lucero's ability to get on base and saving us runs as an outfielder. That's what the goal is. As a coach you want both options, you want both to play, you want it to be a real tough decision between the two. It gives you a better chance to mix and match, keep guys healthy, keep guys fresh and then based on the opponent and who you're facing on the mound you can make decisions on a day to day basis and feel like that you're not locked into a line up that you just have to go with because those are the only guys who are playing well.
bc.net: Looking at the Sacramento series, what kind of ballclub are they offensively and defensively?
RW: To honest, they're almost identical to us. They're a very good offensively ballclub. They're probably a better defensive ballclub than we are but the pitching staff, their pitching numbers are a little bit better than ours, we're 7th in the league, they're 6th. But they do have a kid named [Jose] Ramirez that has really been outstanding for them on Friday which is really something that they really haven't had. They haven't really had a Friday guy, the old Sacramento history, they didn't feel like they could win on Friday night, they didn't have a guy that could match up and now they do. The Friday game has a lot of impact, we'll roll Sturdevant back to Friday night against Sacramento. He's our best guy with our best chance to win on Friday.
Momentum is really difficult for most fans to see in baseball but it's very clear, it's slow momentum but I think sometimes it's very difficult to change baseball momentum. It's just as slow to change as it is in developing. You know basketball is a sport where you can see changes in momentum immediately. In basketball the quality coaches know the value of the timeout. Sometimes just a timeout can kill basketball momentum. The good coaches use their timeouts masterfully. In baseball you can't. You can go make mound visits, you can change pitchers but momentum is hard to establish and it's hard to stop. It's a slower process, you've got to be patient with it. Friday night though can establish that type of momentum. You've got a win under your belt on Friday so guys play a little bit more relaxed on Saturday. Saturday is a tough day because you're looking at nine hours on the field, eighteen innings of baseball. Whether you're playing good or not you've got to work throughout that day to know when to use energy. You've got to conserve some, you can't burn yourself up in game one.
bc.net: On the topic of momentum, how important then are these two games against Texas Tech in trying to reverse the momentum you have coming off the Fresno State series?
RW: I don't think they're of utmost important. I think they'd be good wins but my kids all know that right now the only record that makes any difference at all is our conference record. They understand very clearly that we haven't played well enough or won enough games to get an at-large bid. Would it be nice to play well against Tech and get some momentum? Yes. To say that it's the most important thing? No, not really. We had some momentum against Oklahoma-Panhandle, obviously they're a smaller school opponent and it did give us some offensive momentum, we had struggled with the bat and that carried over into Friday's game. I think you look at every game as important to win but from an outside standpoint looking in, I don't think it's terribly important that we win them. I don't think wins or losses in these two games will impact how we do in Sacramento. In fact the only real concern that I have is that my ballclub will look completely past these games and prepare mentally to go play Sacramento because they know how important that series is.