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. In part one of this week's interview Coach Ward talks about this past weekend's series against Louisiana Tech, the differences between playing in the tournament and regular season and talks about the first round matchups.
bleedCrimson.net: Talk a little bit about the series this past weekend with Louisiana Tech.
Rocky Ward: It was kind of like what I thought it would be. Kind of difficult to play because Louisiana Tech came to play and they were relaxed and we didn't play terribly well. When you look back to it, it wasn't that bad. It was reasonably decent baseball with the exception of the six error game where we just didn't play real good clean defensive baseball and kind of felt like we gave one away. Outside of that it wasn't too bad. I was a little disappointed in the first two games, the doubleheader because I thought we got really good outings out of both Goin and Sturdevant and I was rooting for their seventh wins. Six or seven wins in a season for a college kid doesn't seem terribly impressive but with the number of starts they get and the way college baseball is with closing games out, it was kind of a big deal. With this schedule every starter gets three or four less starts. On a personal note for those kids I thought it was neat to have a couple of seven game winners and with the tournament potentially eight.
I just thought guys were really lethargic in the doubleheader. It was kind of like we had just gotten off the road. We played a couple different times after the long Hawai'i-Reno trip we didn't have much energy and that was maybe the only real disappointment. We managed to salvage one of the doubleheader wins and then we played poorly defensively with six errors on Saturday. But the good thing is we got a real good start out of Vendette after he was really bad the weekend before and that's good news for the tournament time. Then we follow up with another bad start out of Smith and another one of those back and forth Sunday games. But this time we end up winning 15-13 instead of losing 15-14 like we did week against Hawai'i.
Overall when you look back to it you gotta say "Well, I guess I gotta feel better than Nevada did." They had a chance to win a conference title and they get swept. And Fresno did whatever they could do to open the door. Sacramento hits them in the mouth with a six run inning and a kid named Hottman who's like the number three catcher hadn't hit a home run all season hits a walk off grand slam to beat them. Pretty unlikely circumstances.
The funny part about this is that the goals going into the weekend were to win three out of four with the idea that San Jose might be able to win two and we had to win one more than they did to get to the number four seed so we could get Hawai'i in the first round. When it's all said and done we get Hawai'i in the first round it's just going to be them 2 and us 5. In that spot we talked briefly, in a six team tournament the 3-4 seeds are kind of dangerous seeds. If you lose the 3-4 game you're going to draw the number one seed in the second round in most cases. You have a little bit of danger if you don't play real good baseball early of going out of the tournament real quick. Out of the 2-5 game if you lose the 2-5 game you generally draw the six seed.
bc.net: Looking ahead at the tournament do you think your team is the most prepared to handle the pressure of the tournament given that your team was really the only team out of the six that was in danger of not making the tournament midway through the season?
RW: Well I think that San Jose State and at one point Sacramento may have felt a little pressure even though Sacramento at one point was 10-3 in the league. I don't think that makes much difference. I think that it was more important to us because as the new guy in the WAC and having not made the tournament we probably carried a little more pressure there. But I'm not sure it prepares us any more for the tournament. What I do know is that we've beaten everybody in the league and you've gotta say that San Jose is probably the hottest team in the league going into the tournament and that's a team that we handled pretty well. I really like the matchups. I felt all along that pitching wise we match up pretty well with the right people. Right now in the first game we're going to catch Hawai'i and the plan right now is to go with Heath Goin.
We feel like we match up pretty good and you plan on winning and so we plan on facing either San Jose or Nevada in the second game. And we feel like Sturdevant matches up well with both of those clubs. The one win we got against Nevada was with Sturdevant and he also beat San Jose. So the first two rounds we feel like we have positive matchups. I think that everybody is going to feel like they have a shot. We're going to go into the tournament as the best offensive team in the tournament. We have a Top 10 offensive team, which says that if we play better defense and we get reasonaby good pitching that we've got a legitimate chance. There are times where you feel like you have to have big time luck to have a chance but I think there's enough parity in this league, particularly if you're dealing with Alexander being out, he's one of the better pitchers in this league, and Scheppers is definitely out. That makes Fresno a little more vulnerable. Now the pitching staff is still good and it may not show up, the loss of Scheppers may not show up til later in the tournament. But I think their pitching is still good enough that their 2-3-4 matches up well with everybody else's 1-2-3. They're just not going to have that dominant pitching advantage that they would have had if they had had him. I think a lot of things are lining up for it to be a really entertaining tournament. You need to play well early, you need to go in and get accustomed to the field. One disadvantage is we did not play there this year. I think it's always an advantage in a league tournament if you happen to have a road game at that location during the year because guys have been there before. Similar to what we've talked about with the Fresno tournament and the Fresno games.
When you look up, Fresno State barely managed a split at Sacramento, Nevada loses all four and Hawai'i loses two of three at home to Utah Valley, who's power rating is 240, San Jose seems to be the hottest team coming into the tournament besides us if you want to go back a couple of weeks.
The real oddity is that because of what happened this weekend is that they're all playing each other again to open the tournament. Sacramento spit with them [Fresno] in order to get them in the first round. San Jose played themselves into playing Nevada again. When you look at it these guys are all playing their fifth game against each other in a week, granted it's a neutral site, it's a different situation.
The thing about La. Tech is that it's a unique field in that it can be very offensive and most of the time stays as a pretty offensive field but we're also going to be playing in 80 degree weather with 80% humidity and when the wind blows there the wind blows in. When you look at the dimensions of the field it's 315 down the left field line, I think 360 or 370 in the left-centerfield gap, 380 to center, it's 340 to right-center in that place. It's a real small park. They've tried to make some adjustments to it by raising the fence and stuff like that. It's a field that I don't think works against us any.
bc.net: With the way the brackets have shaken out this past weekend and the rematches that are set up for the first day what are your thoughts on the possibility of the top three seeds (Fresno State, Hawai'i and Nevada) ending up in the loser's bracket after the first day?
RW: I think the odds are pretty close to even. I think that in the 1-6 game with Sacramento, I think class will win out there. Although it didn't surprise me that Sacramento gave Fresno trouble because Sacramento is the only team in the league that has a pitching staff full of breaking ball pitchers. Mid-velocity, multiple breaking ball pitchers. That's what gives Fresno trouble. When you go at them 90-91 mph they don't have much trouble but when you go at them and you throw the slider and you throw the change and you throw the sinker, they really have a hard time. With the knowledge that Tanner Scheppers is out it really shortens their bullpen a lot.
I think it's a clear 50/50 game [NMSU/Hawai'i]. If they put odds on baseball I think we could be considered a favorite in game one. Not by much and no disrespect to Hawai'i but if Alexander's not with them just that fact and the fact that it's a small ballpark. Now we made all those statements about Hawai'i coming into our place and that panned out for the first two games but then in games three and four they pretty much hammered us with their bats and so I think we have a little bit more healthy respect for what they can do offensively.
In the 3-4 game I think San Jose's got a pretty strong psychological advantage.
To answer your question, do I think it will happen? No. Do I think it could happen? Yeah. Would I be surprised if it happened? Not at all. I don't think seedings mean a whole heck of a lot in this thing at all. I think that the way this thing has ended up and the way the year has ended up I think it's gonna be who plays each individual baseball game best and I think any of the six of us have a real good chance to win. I think Sacramento and us to a certain extent may have a little bit more difficulty than the other guys just because we haven't had great success with our down line pitching depth. That's the real concern I have. Even though it's not as big a concern as it would have been last year or in past years. Six team tournaments you have to have four starters. Previous years you're playing three game series and your fourth start is a Tuesday guy. We've done this third and fourth starter a lot [this year], we've done the fifth and sixth starter thing a lot. People want to look at our ERA and say their ERA is 7.50. Yeah it is but we were also one of the teams that had to play six games in a week five times. It's just the way it worked out. We had to have a number five and number six man on the mound for an extended amount of time where normally those guys are getting two or three innings of work a week instead of five or six or seven.
bc.net: From a mindset standpoint what are the differences between playing in the tournament and playing a regular four-game series.
RW: There's a huge difference because every time you win or lose your decisions completely change. in a four game series you set your rotation up, you may make a change of your three or four game starter. You may decide, as Hawai'i did in our series to take ther game four starter and close him in game three to guarantee a win.
Every game you play is its own entity and then you have other games that impact who you're going to play next. A lot of decisions you make tournament time are not self contained decisions. A lot of decisions you make are decisions based on what other guys do as well. We know the other people's personnel very well now. We've played everybody at least four times and with Fresno and Hawai'i, the #1 and #2 teams in the tournament, eight times a piece. We know those guys pretty good, we know their personnel and I think the tournament is more fun to manage because things change almost on an hourly basis. You may think you know who you're going to go with but then another coach makes a different decision to go with one guy and you expected him to do something else.
So yeah, you manage differently. During the regular season, especially when we were playing six game weeks I had to be very careful how far I went with pitchers. I had to be very careful with how much I put players on the field, I had to find ways to get the mainline players like Stout, Scaperotta and especially Leghorn, the high demand, the skill position, I try to find a way to rest them as much as I can. When you get in the tournament you don't worry about it. You set your starting nine and you go head to head every day. Beyond that there's not a lot of management as far as how your lineup is going to go. You know who you're going to go to war with but most of your decisions are how you're going to pitch. There are going to be decisions in the tournament where you may feel like you have to use a reliever for longer than you like. The only way I've found it to be reasonable to manage games in these types of tournaments is to manage to win the game you're playing.
Sturdevant and Goin are going to go in the first two games. Sebastien Vendette has the physical capability to match what Sturdevant and Goin have done. It's a matter of whether or not he brings it any given day. So the one thing we've struggled with throughout the year is finding a four and five guy that can be consistent. We feel like with Sturdevant, Goin, Vendette and Garza, we have four guys that can go out and win us a championship.
Be sure to check in tomorrow for Part II of this week's interview with Coach Ward