bleedCrimson.net Weekly Coach Ward Interview :: 05/05/08

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 getting a split in Fresno against the league leaders, talks about sustaining momentum over the final two weeks and heading into the conference tournament and the importance of playing their final two series at home.

bleedCrimson.net: Talk a little bit about this past weekend's series with Fresno State? You got exactly what you needed with the split and came really close to winning all four.
Rocky Ward: It was a good weekend. We got momentum out of the Sacramento weekend and kids were feeling good about themselves. We've gotten good pitching, our defense has still got some cracks just not quite as big. We've swung the bats. As an offensive team we seem to have found the confidence and kids are starting to get it. They're starting to understand how important every single pitch is and guys are going to the plate and battling every pitch. We've benefitted from it. It's a big deal. [Tyler] Sturdevant did not throw well on Friday and we still had a chance to win it. They had to bring Sunday's starter [Tanner Scheppers] in to close that game. We took them right to the edge and looking back to it you kinda go "Geez, if we'd just a normal start that we'd normally get from Sturdevant, we'd have won that one."

Then you get a great start out of [Heath] Goin and really an outstanding offensive day in game one of the doubleheader. We just kept coming at them. We'd score, take an inning off then score, take an inning off then score again. It's one of those things we'd struggled with at times during the year, early in the year, we'd score early then we wouldn't score much late once we got into a little bit of pressure. We didn't let that happen to us. Part of that is the fact that as you move on through the year, guys trust Heath to keep us in the game. Not only did he keep us in the game, he pitched very well, shut down a very good offense.

Then game two with Sebastien [Vendette] you don't know what you're gonna get because his track record has been to throw two or three good innings then have a bad one and that's what hurt him through the early part of the year. He had an outstanding outing against Sacramento and he backed it up with another outstanding in the second half of the doubleheader. We didn't play very good defense, we gave up a four unearned runs in the second after we put a five-spot on them to go up 5-1 and then we turn around and make a couple defensive mistakes and give it back. Historically Sebastien hasn't pitched very well after some bad baseball breaks but this time he did. So it's a real good sign for him as far as personal growth as a pitcher and it's a great sign for the ballclub because you feel like you have a guy that's figured it out. He's figured out what he's trying to do and he's gained some confidence and you can trust him to not second guess himself when things don't go good.

We extended that game out piece by piece, we kept extending the lead once we got it back. At 8-5 then 11-5, then 11-6, then 12-6 and then we gave up one in the ninth but they kinda dumped the ball around a little bit. But we got [Erik] Nyquist to come in and give us a two pitch, ground ball to the first baseman and the save and so his magic continues. It's really nice to have a guy in save situations that you feel really comfortable when he comes in that you're going to win. It makes the defense play better and it just makes the team more confident.

Then we faced Tanner Scheppers for whatever reason. I don't have any idea he [Fresno's head coach] made the pitching moves he did. You never know, maybe the kid was a little sore from the previous start. I thought maybe what they were doing was starting to line up for tournament time. During the regular season you have to have five starters or six starters in some cases but when you get to the tournament you need three and maybe a fourth if you get in the losers bracket. I just thought maybe he was starting to line up his pitching staff a little bit and thought maybe they were going to move Scheppers into a closing role instead of a starting role where they could use him two or three times in a tournament instead of just the one start. It wouldn't be a terribly unusual move as good as their other starters are. But then he closes our game and comes and starts the game on Sunday against us.

We did a really outstanding job against the guy. He's got major league stuff and he's throwing the ball 95-96 mph consistently. I think the lowest fastball he threw in the outing was a 93 mph fastball. We were kind of joking around in the dugout, Dillon Smith's what you'd call a command pitcher, low velocity guy, Dillon's fastball was about 82-83, he can get it up to 84-85 if he needs to but it doesn't help that much and he's more of a fastball command, straight change, slider type pitcher, what you'd call a finesse pitcher but guys were kind of joking that Schepper's changeup was the same speed as Smith's fastball, both 83. So it was kind of a funny deal.

We did a good job, the kid had to throw 140 pitches and we got to their bullpen and they had the Sprague kid who started against us a couple weeks ago at home and pitched well against us, that I'm sure they were trying to save because they've got a game tomorrow [Tuesday] against Long Beach St. at Long Beach and I"m sure they didn't want to have to use him but they had to. And again in that game, we did what we needed to do, we got the big stud out of the game, got to the bullpen, made them use their guy and we just couldn't get that breakthrough hit. [Tyler] Hardt had an opportunity when they brought him in in the seventh with runners at first and second with two outs and Sprague got him on a pretty good changeup off the end of the bat and then we had again the tying run come to the plate in the ninth after [Colin] Crouthamel singled in a pinch hit role and just couldn't get it done.

If we play well the rest of the way out, if both of those teams lose six out of eight and we win six out of eight, we'll tie Hawai'i for third place in the league.

That'll be quite an accomplishment considering where we've been the last couple of years...
If you're gonna spit a series, we did everything we could but win the series. The two games we lose we had the winning run come to the plate late in the game and you battle them all the way to the end. We're pretty proud of our club. As a result of our two wins and the three losses out of La. Tech, that qualifies us for the tournament. So we're already qualified into the tournament with eight games left for us and so that's out of the way. When you start looking at the fact that we have a chance to close the gap with Hawai'i with a four game series this weekend and kind of looking at moving up the charts in the seedings. On paper San Jose and Sacramento both have Nevada and Fresno to end the year. They each have series with both of those guys, they're gonna have a tough time. It wouldn't surprise me if they split with them, they're still good quality ballclubs but both of those guys [Nevada and Fresno State] are both competing for the conference title and so they're not going to be holding anybody back. So those are guys that are between a half game and a game and a half ahead of us right now. If we play well the rest of the way out, if both of those teams lose six out of eight and we win six out of eight, we'll tie Hawai'i for third place in the league. That'll be quite an accomplishment considering where we've been the last couple of years and all the hard work we've had to try to get back to a good basis point that we can work from. That's been a goal for two or three years since we joined the WAC, to get yourself in the middle of the league where you have an opportunity if you play real well late you may win it. If you don't play so well you're still going to be in the tournament and you're still going to have an opportunity to go into the tournament location and win four games and go to a regional. Some of those goals the last couple of weeks have been brought back into focus and we're really pleased with it.

I'm really happy with the way my kids responded to each other and to the staff in Sacramento and they carried that on into Fresno and Fresno's not the easiest place in the world to play. They've got about eight or ten of those crazy maniacs in the stands that just never ever shut up. They've got a couple crazy fans and every time you something wrong they remind you of it for four innings and it makes it a little bit more difficult environment to play in.

bc.net: Having come out of this weekend with a spit and looking back at your decision to schedule the appearance in the Pepsi Johnny Quik Tournament back i March, how important did that end up being for your team?
RW: I think the end result it was extraordinarily important just because the fact that we did go in with confidence. It wouldn't have meant anything if we hadn't done what we did at Sacramento. But because we had that momentum and when we walked into Fresno, we'd already been there a week. We were comfortable with the surroundings. It didn't help much that there was a huge motorcycle rally in Fresno and half the motorcycle gangs were staying at our hotel which meant all the way until about 4:00 in the morning every five minutes you heard the roar of a motorcycle. They were doing wheelies in the parking lot and everything you can imagine. We tried to get a few of them to come out to the game and sit around the loudmouth fans but we couldn't get them to do that, they were too busy with their bikes.

End result? Absolutely. It made things much more comfortable. So good decision? Yeah. Plus we needed those games anyway. We got some neutral site games there and really it would have cost us the same amount of money to try to guarantee somebody to come play us at home.

bc.net: We've talked a lot about building momentum and how it's kind of a slow thing, but in that first game, how important was the fifth inning where it looked like they had a possible inning ending double play ball and their second baseman Erik Wetzel booted it and you go on to score six runs in the inning. Even though you ended up losing the game, how important was it for your club to put those six runs on the board given the way that Fresno State dominated the final three games of the series in Las Cruces and were up 8-2 at that point in the game?
RW: More than anything it said to the kids, that's what we did when they were at our place. We made mistakes and they capitalized on those mistakes. It's our turn for them to make a mistake and we had to follow it up by capitalizing on mistakes, which we did consistently through the weekend. That's been one of the small things that we hadn't been great on through the year was capitalizing on opponents' mistakes. We managed to do that. At the time I was just trying to win a game and I'm going "Jeez, they just made a big mistake, they're going to let us back in the middle of this thing, we've got a chance to go win on Friday night and you never know what's going to happen." The best thing about it all was we capitalized on the mistakes, we got back into the game, we handed it back to them the next inning by making our own mistake and giving up a couple unearned runs. But you watch your kids and the kids a month ago when those things happened you could see them get deflated and you're trying to grab them by the shirt collar and say "get up and get going", I didn't have to do that this weekend. Guys are starting to learn to do that themselves and it's really important that they do. You can only throw them back into the fray by kicking them in the butt so many times. They've gotta decide that they're gonna go back themselves and they did a good job with it and that resulted in the two wins.

I think we feel like that we've finally earned our way into the league and people are finally starting to understand us as a real factor in the league...We weren't very far away, we were a swing of the bat from winning three out of four. Kids were seriously thinking about the top of the league for the first time instead of where we were right now, saying "Hey, we win three out of four here, we win on Sunday and we've got to be considered, with the fact that we have two home series to go, we've got to be considered somebody they need to watch out for." I think that Fresno quietly throughout the series showed our kids how much they thought of us. When they brought Scheppers to close, when they brought him back on Sunday to start which I don't believe was the plan on Friday to start him on Sunday, I really doubt that was the original plan. The way they managed their ballclub showed respect for us as a team and I think our kids finally recognized that. In fact at the end of Friday's game, Chase Tidwell our pitching coach, really has some unique perspectives, he's just a real guy, he's not full of crud, he just kinda says it the way he sees it and he said "You know, I think Fresno State thinks we're better than we think we are" and I said, "well... maybe, but I think we're getting there." I think both comments were right. I think we feel like that we've finally earned our way into the league and people are finally starting to understand us as a real factor in the league and you've gotta earn it. You've gotta go play it to get that done so I think they've done it.

We've still got eight to play, there's still a lot on the line, a lot of things can go in a bad way. We know we're in the tournament, that's great but if you lose six out of the last eight going into the tournament, you're not going to be very happy with it. If you reverse that and win six out of the last eight or somewhere in that range going into the tournament, then we'll be that club I thought we could be. We'll be the hot team going into the tournament.

bc.net: Talk a little bit about that, you guys are the hottest team in the league right now, obviously you have the same amount of wins as Nevada in the past two series but they were at Louisiana Tech this weekend. How do you sustain that momentum for the last two weeks and heading into the tournament?
RW: Well, I think you just continue the same approach you've had all along. You praise the kids a little more for what they've done, you also continue to push them a little bit harder. Kids and athletes when they're doing well are more attentive to anything, not negative, but anything you need them to do a little bit better. When they're doing well, it's easier to make adjustments and I'm talking all the way down to mechanical adjustments. You get a kid not playing real well and you ask him to make mechanical adjustments, it would make logical sense to the layman that the kid would be really willing to, that's not always the case. In fact it's very rarely the case. When athletes are under stress and you haven't had a real good performance of late, they're really difficult to coach. So we've really worked hard as a staff to go back and we'll all do the same things we've been talking to them about for the last three months and say "Now listen, you have to do this, you've had some success of late but if you want to be better, if you want to be something really special then now is the time. You've gotta make these adjustments." So that's been the case, I think it's just a matter of continuing to play hard and play with confidence and that's what we'll do.

Guys have talked about it for the last couple of weeks. They really feel like they played well enough in Reno and Hawai'i to win, we just didn't and we were just a play or two short. At Hawai'i, we hit a whole bunch of balls really hard that hitters felt like they got no credit for because they just didn't go anywhere. They felt like it was an unfair offensive yard. So they've been looking forward to getting Hawai'i and that team into Las Cruces where they have to deal with their alter ego baseball field. So I think they have the right frame of mind. That doesn't mean that Hawai'i is gonna come in here and roll over. It just means that, okay Hawai'i, you got us in your park, it really fits your team great and doesn't fit ours at all but we're looking for payback when you come into our park. So I think this frame of mind is good.

Some of the concerns I have are this is finals week. Normal students are under stress at this time of the year. The athlete that's been on the road trying to play top level baseball and has to come back and along with doing studies and doing whatever they need to do on the road, now they've got to come back and close things out and so we'll see. We play Thursday and Friday and there's some kids that have finals on Thursday and they're gonna take finals and then turn around and try to play competitive baseball games. I have a some concerns about that but we'll see, I think that we'll be okay. My kids have been doing a good job of staying up with their stuff.

bc.net: How much help is it not having those midweek games for the last three weeks and not having to worry about the extra innings your guys are having to pitch and the extra innings your guys are having to play expending energy?
RW: It's huge. It was big this weekend just in the simple fact that you knew you didn't have to hold anybody. Kids as a whole were much fresher. Position players I noticed it a lot. It wasn't just because we were playing Fresno and we had something to prove, it was because their bodies were in better shape. Both [Richard] Stout and [Joseph] Scaperotta both had leg problems almost all year. Both of those guys had energy again. Scaperotta ran better than what he had for the last month and half and Stout stole his first base in about two or three weeks. That's full out sprint with about as much pressure as you can put on your legs, he came off that without any problems, no limping at all. I think that more than anything is giving them three or four days off their feet and helping them get that final phase of healing back.

bc.net: You've been vocal this season about wanting to win all the games you play but at the same time the games that matter the most are the conference games. Talk about that and being able to through some of the tough times in the non-conference schedule being able to keep your guys focused on winning the league games.
RW: Well, it's really hard for me to concede any game and I've been pretty straight with you in our interviews about the importance of the league games and where we are. I probably haven't spent as much time talking to the kids about that because I don't want to ever look at a game as a game that doesn't need to be won. Because momentum can be gained by any of those games, but at the same time I don't think there's any question they understand how I feel. They understand how important it is for us to play well in conference. This is a group of smart kids, they're not just good baseball players, they're smart kids. And they can figure out the fact that the only guy that's going to go to regional this year is the winner of the conference tournament and that's really the only real important goal. That's to get yourself into the tournament where you have the best chance to win it.

What's the best thing about the two wins against Fresno? It's the fact that we have beaten them three times this year. They beat us five but if we face them in the tournament, whoever wins the next confrontation between us and Fresno is the overall winner regardless of what that record was and that's what we're going to continue to talk about.

It is nice if you're playing San Jose State, we beat them three out of four. You have a psychological advantage, if you're playing Sacramento we beat them four. The Hawai'i series, if we do what we're supposed to do this weekend and we win three out of four then we've split with them on the year and whoever wins the next one in the conference tournament, that's what matters. It's just kind of keep your eyes on the prize a little bit, understand that what you did during the regular season has some influence but it's not the most important factor. How well you play in that game is what's important and I can tell you that after having gotten dominated by Fresno at home it was important that we played very well at Fresno regardless of the wins or losses because it sets a tone for if and when we face them in the conference tournament, we won't have felt like they've dominated us and that's really important. We haven't felt that way about anybody else except them.

Even in the two series we lost against Nevada and Hawai'i, we played well in those games. Hawai'i was a big disadvantage because of the facility, Reno, they just kinda seemed to get some home breaks. We led both games of the doubleheaders, felt like we should've won them and we made a mistake and they capitalized on them in each of those two games and that was the difference. One inning in each of those two games they beat us in. You kinda felt like that we won 16 innings, they won two but they got the two games.

bc.net: Coming out of this three week stretch where when it began you were about to play the top two teams in the league, if somebody had told you at the end of those 12 games you'd go 6-6, would the way you did it have surprised you? Going on the road and winning six of eight?
RW: Well, yeah it would surprise me because it's really difficult to sweep anybody in the league, without being the dominant guy on top that's done it a lot of times. It's hard to do. In 2003 we swept FIU at FIU and that catapulted us to a second place finish in the Sun Belt and basically ultimately into an at large bid. To sweep a team at any time but particularly on the road is extraordinarily difficult to do.

Now going 6-6 to believe that it could have happened? No that's not a surprise but yes, the way it happened, getting swept at home, following that up with a sweep on the road to neutralize that and then to take on the goliath of the league and split there, I don't think I would have expected that. I think we could have gotten the 6-6 record in a lot of other ways first.

bc.net: About a month ago I asked you about your team finishing up the regular season with two series at home and how important that was and you said that the importance of that would depend on how your team did in the three weeks leading up to that. Now what you have done is put yourself back into a position to finish in the top four in the league, how important is it having those last two series at home?
RW: Well now they're extraordinarily important because we've made it through the tough run and to be able to finish these two at home, in particular going into travel in La. Tech. That's pretty important because we've got time to stabilize and our bodies are going to be a lot more fresh when we make this last travel trip.

I've done it a couple of times where I've played the last series on the road and then to have to go right back into another road trip for the tournament. It's a tough turnaround. It's not just how player deals, it's about coaches and how we feel about stuff. We have to do all the logistical things and we carry some stress by that sort of travel. The games are important at our home because we can sit and be comfortable and as I said, on paper, Hawai'i will feel about the same way about our park as we feel about theirs.

I think that now it becomes really important because instead of fighting and clawing like we have the last couple of years, and we had the last two at home last year. We were kinda in La. Tech's position, we weren't going real well, both the teams coming into us were more prepared to play and we were kinda fighting for our lives without much to stand on. So this time I've got Hawai'i that's going to think after what they did this weekend, they won three of four at home, they've gotta think they're in a position to win the league. So they're going to come in with that thought in mind. We have it in our mind that we're trying to catch them. I believe we're five games behind them in the win column. If we swept them at home, we'd still be a half game back but it sure would put an awful lot of pressure on them and when I started looking at the numbers, if we won the last eight and they lost the last four, because they only have our series left, we'd either be in the third seed or the fourth seed. I don't think we can get all the way to the second seed. Once you get to the fourth seed it really doesn't make any difference, you're playing them [third seed]. Whether they're third or fourth, in reality third place would mean a lot to me because one of the main goals would be to finish in the top half of the league, which that would do.