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 this past weekend's series against Hawai'i, the series finale against Louisiana Tech and talks about the mindset of the team heading into the conference tournament.
bleedCrimson.net: Talk about the series against Hawai'i, you started out with two come from behind wins and then on Saturday you had kind of a weird day.
Rocky Ward: We continued the momentum and played pretty well but we kind of set a precedent on Thursday when we gave up five in the first but we managed to shut them out the rest of the way and managed to win 7-5. [Tyler] Sturdevant really pitched well after the first inning and we did a good job offensively.
Then in game two we gave up runs early, gave up the lead early again but the offense really had a good day, the final was 13-8 and it wasn't as close as that. Once we got to the top of that game we got after it, we had that game won for a while. Of course we had game four won like that too, that's what made it a weird day.
What happened to us on Saturday, the first game we gave up three in the first, three in the second and three in the third and where we had been giving up early runs but then getting a couple of zeroes for our offense to catch up, we just didn't get good starts and we didn't get good relief and we trailed that game 9-3 after three innings and then we got it to within 11-9. As coaches we were a little concerned with how much energy it took to get us back even and then we had a bad inning and they scored again and ended up extending it out on us. We ended up losing that one 17-10 and you just kinda write that one off to just a tough day. Our offense had been asked to do an awful lot the first two days and they had responded very well and responded well again, we just didn't get the pitching and defense to kind of stabilize the middle of the game like we did the first two days.
Then in the fourth game we go down 4-1 early again, we get it back to four and then we give up the two to go down 6-4 and then we score eight and we're up 12-6 and you're going "Jeez, for the first time in a couple days you can breathe again" and then we turn around with two outs and nobody on base we have an error, a hit batsman and then four or five straight hits in a row that culminated with the McDonald home run that tied the game. It was one of those weird days where you felt like the last team at bat would win. We fought back three or four times to get the lead or get tied and we just kept putting a bad defensive inning on top of that. We got a zero to work on at 12-12 and we had Leghorn at second with Aguirre at the plate and he hits a high fly ball to right that looks like it's going to be gone. The right fielder just hung out there and jumped up over the fence about three feet and robbed a home run and Leghorn was called out for leaving second base too early. Well my guys have been trained consistently to stay on the bag until the ball leaves the park. I thought we got a really bad deal there. It turned from a two run home run at home that may be the game winner and it turns into no run inning that ends in a crazy double play.
Bottom line in game four was we pitched poorly again, what we did is we stayed in the game and got our guy to the mound and he threw a pitch to the kid who hit the last home run, we threw a pitch we had been getting him out on, maybe we'd thrown too often. We'd been getting him out up in the zone, I think the kid went out and looked for it and hit a home run. Then they were able to get to their closer and we couldn't get anything done. So you lose the doubleheader and you feel like you fought all day. I was exhausted and I know by ballclub was.
End result, I had a discussion with them today, I said "Guys it's part of baseball." We didn't pitch well, really we didn't pitch well in the first part of any of the first four games but we won the first two because the offense was so good. Games three and four our achilles heel, pitching and defense, caught up to us for the first time in a while. But at the same time, we're still in a good condition going into this weekend.
bc.net: Going back to the first game, in the top of the eight inning Sturdevant pitched himself out of a bases loaded jam with one out and then Erik Nyquist pitched himself out of a second and third with one out jam, both guys struck out the last two batters they faced. Can you talk about them being able to work out of those situations?
Sturdevant and Nyquist are our guys. That's what they're supposed to be able to do and that's what they did.RW: At the time we had kind of established dominance. We got into both of those innings from five or six pitch walks where we just missed by a baseball. Balls that weren't hit hard, kind of baseball type innings where they didn't really do much to start the innings, they'd hit them off the end of the bat or they hit seeing eye singles, that type of thing. So I think that at the same time we really felt like, at that time, we could get them out whenever we needed to get them at. I think the simple fact that they had given up a 5-0 lead and they hadn't scored, they didn't have any momentum and those are our guys, Sturdevant and Nyquist are our guys. That's what they're supposed to be able to do and that's what they did. The second one was easier because Busani had hit the two run home run in the bottom of the ninth. The first inning it was still tied at 5 so that was a little more difficult. But Sturdevant, the pro scouts told us he was 93 to 94 mph on the radar gun in that inning. He threw the ball harder that inning than he did the entire game. That was a good news thing not just in the fact that we won the game but that really signifies that he's truly back from his arm surgery.
bc.net: Talk about the position that your team is in heading into this final series with Lousiana Tech. You got quite a bit of help from Fresno State and Nevada, especially from Nevada, they came back from three down in the ninth to beat Sacramento State and took the series 3-1.
All I'm concerned about and all I've talked about to my ballclub about is keeping our eyes on the prize.RW: We knew that the two guys we were chasing were gonna have to face the top two guys in the league so them losing three out of four in both cases was kind of what we projected. So we kind of project that again for this upcoming weekend. But what I've found in conference play on the last weekend of conference play, lots of weird things happen. Everybody's under a different pressure. Sometimes the team that's the most desperate has an advantage over the team that's trying to finish first instead of second, so you never know what's going to happen. I'm a little concerned about the position we're in. We're playing against Louisiana Tech and we're not sure who we're going to be playing. We're not sure if we're going to be playing a team that feels like they've got something to prove or a team that feels like "let's just get this over with." I have a lot of respect for Wade Simoneaux and would really prefer not be in the situation but I definitely prefer it over the situation that it could have possibly been and that is a few weeks ago we were looking at the possibility of playing this series to get in to the tournament. We eliminated that a couple weeks ago and so I don't know. I think that the guys understand that if we play well, if we win three out of four or four we'll probably be the four seed and we'll get another shot at Hawai'i.
It's funny, guys felt like we owed Hawai'i one when they came into us and we went out and won a couple. Then we just kinda let baseball and a couple tough performances get in the way of winning the last two. So all of the sudden the ballclub's feel is that we have underperformed against Hawai'i and we wouldn't mind facing them again in the first round. So it may be a funny deal where the motivation doesn't come from the seeding it'll come from another opportunity to face them early in the tournament.
All I'm concerned about and all I've talked about to my ballclub about is keeping our eyes on the prize. We have to make sure that this weekend we manage, that we don't overextend any of our pitchers, that we don't get anybody hurt, we try to keep guys rested as much as we can in preparation for the tournament. So you're trying to win three or four games and win a number four seed, but at the same time winning a number four seed and ending up overextending a pitching staff hurts the final goal. I've warned my club a little bit, they need to understand that I'm going to manage for the tournament. I'm going to manage to have the best ballclub that's going to have the very best chance to go in and win it because that's what the ultimate goal is.
bc.net: Can you talk a little bit about sustaining this momentum that you've gotten over the last three to four weeks and how difficult is it to maintain it for such a long stretch of time?
I think that this club has gotten better over the course of the season and we're a much better team than we were at the beginning of the year so there's no reason we wouldn't continue to play good solid baseball.RW: It depends on how good you really are. If it's a ballclub that you feel is just starting to come into its own and starting to play up to its potential then it's not hard to maintain. If the end result says it's a ballclub that's played over its head then it's really difficult to maintain. I really believe that we're in the first category. I think that this club has gotten better over the course of the season and we're a much better team than we were at the beginning of the year so there's no reason we wouldn't continue to play good solid baseball.
What would we like to have happen? We'd like to win all four against La. Tech and go into the tournament truly hot. But the last tournament I won in 2002 we went on the road against Little Rock who wasn't going to be in the tournament almost the same type of scenario except we were playing on the road. And we get beat two out of three on the road by a team who had nothing to play for and that concerned me. I wasn't sure but the end result was my guys had their eyes on the prize. We managed the series that same way. Williams was our number one pitcher, we held him out for that weekend and went 2-3-4 instead of 1-2-3. So we made some coaching decisions back then to ensure that we would be the strongest we could be when we walked into South Alabama and I think we'll manage in a similar way [this year].
I really don't believe with this group.. that they care much about anything other than playing good in the tournament and having a shot at winning an opportunity to go to regional and winning a conference championship again and that's fine with me.I really don't believe with this group of people based on the feeling I get from them, that they care much about anything other than playing good in the tournament and having a shot at winning an opportunity to go to regional and winning a conference championship again and that's fine with me. I think if they have their minds on that, then this weekend will take care of itself and they'll be prepared to play when we go in. I had 15 to 20 minutes with them today just to remind them to keep their eyes on the prize. Understand we're going to manage these games this weekend a little different. We're not going to get a pitcher into a high pitch count, we're not going to get anybody in jeopardy, we're going to try to keep people healthy and fresh. I also reminded them that yes, we're trying to win every single game but I'm not going to win a game at the cost of putting a potential conference tournament game at risk.
They seem to be where I want them to be. They were disappointed, maybe more disappointed than I've ever seen them as a group after the doubleheader on Saturday and that's a good sign. That means they believe in themselves and they care. When you're a competitive athlete if it doesn't hurt when you lose then you're not putting out enough effort. These guys have continued to put out effort and they've continued to be willing to put it on the line every day.