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 two of the season's final interview Coach Ward talks about the upcoming conference meetings, next season's schedule and talks about the expectations for next season.
bleedCrimson.net: Talk a little bit about your upcoming schedule a little bit.
Rocky Ward: We're going have our conference meetings June 19th and one of the big things we're going to discuss are these four game conference series with doubleheaders that all of us despise because they're just miserable miserable days sometimes. Trying to figure out how we're going to change that. The biggest difficulty we have in the WAC is that all the teams are so different in their needs. Hawai'i is out on an island 2000 miles away. They can't midweek games because there's nobody for them to play. Who can spend $15,000 to get on a flight to go play one game on Tuesday? Nobody. We have a similar problem in the fact that we don't have very many teams around us and it's about the same type of deal. Outside of Texas Tech and New Mexico who play us every year you have Arizona and Arizona State. If I really pushed the envelope, I know Pat Murphy pretty well, they'd probably play us home and home as they have in the past. But Arizona's never played in Las Cruces and they never plan to and as a result I'm not going to go play there.
When you're dealing with close opponents it's only natural to play home and home. They come to your place for a game or two and then you go to their place for a game or two and you then pay your own way. That's the way a lot of scheduling is done. We only have basically two teams who are willing on a year in and year out basis to look at us when they start scheduling they know that we're going to be on their schedule and that's New Mexico and Texas Tech. And those are the only midweek games we can play. Even at that Texas Tech is a trip, it's not just jumping in the car. UNM is okay, when you live in New Mexico a three hour trip is a piece of cake. Three to four [hours] is about a normal deal but when you start getting past that and you get into six hours like you do with Texas Tech, if you're gonna play, you can't just really go in there and play a single game. I mean you don't have to spend the cost of flying. But if I'm going to play at 6:00 at Texas Tech on a Tuesday, in order to get there in time for batting practice and to get the guys something to eat and not to feel like you're just rushed from the time you leave, you have to leave at 7:00 in the morning because you lose an hour, in order to get there at 2:00 in the afternoon. You have an hour to eat, 30 minutes to dress and the pre-game activities that start between 3:30 and 4:00 with batting practice and infield and all that stuff and then you play a three hour game at 6:00 then you've got an hour to shower and an hour to eat and then you're looking at 11:00 p.m. When it's all said and done it's a 24 hour trip. If you get done at 11:00 then how are you going to get back? You're gonna get on a bus, you're going to show back up in Las Cruces at five or six in the morning. If the kids are lucky enough to get some sleep on the bus, and anybody that's tried to do that knows how difficult that can be, then we get back and they get a couple hours of shut-eye and then they're required and expected to be in class that morning. Those things make it a little bit difficult.
Us and Hawai'i, Nevada has a little bit of that problem it. La. Tech, San Jose State, Sacramento and Fresno State all have several Division I programs within two hours drives. They can schedule the Tuesday games. They want to go back to a double round robin where we'd play each team three times at each location. So you'd play 36 league games and you'd play everybody six total times, three at home and three on the road. But to do that you're taking up 12 of the 13 weekends that you have with this new condensed schedule. Well, where am I going to schedule the extra 20? We'll I've got a four game weekend to open the season to take me to 40, I still have 16 to schedule and I only have 13 Tuesdays. Where am I going to play those Tuesday games? Am I going to do that scenario I just gave you, to play a single game at Tech? That's nuts! So we've got some issues that we've got to figure out so that it's fair to everybody. Hawai'i can't do it at all.
What Hawai'i and I've done is basically decided is that we can't do Tuesdays and that we're going to play all of our weekends. We're going to play 13 weekends of four game series which is consistent with what the league four game series are. Then we would play New Mexico and Texas Tech on Tuesdays dispersed throughout the year somewhere, wherever we can get them scheduled and that gives us a 56 game schedule. That's what we're scheduled for in '09. This year was crazy because the '08 schedules were set two years ago and everybody had to scramble and make all kinds of adjustments when they took two weeks of the season away from us. So that made this year's schedule really crazy. We like our '09 schedule and where our 2010 schedule. We've got Rhode Island in 2010, we've got Maine, Hartford University, Texas Pan American, I think possibly Chicago State, University of San Francisco is a pretty good ballclub. These are all guys we're set for in '09 but we're still trying to get final confirmation of that. In fact five of the first six weekends will be at home next year and then we'll go into the regular league schedule which has dropped from the misbalanced approach of playing Hawai'i and Fresno 16 times, a balanced schedule where everybody plays everybody four times. It's misbalanced in that you don't get a return trip. So we're going to be at Fresno, at Reno, we'll have San Jose at our place, Hawai'i at our place, I think we go to La. Tech and I think Sacramento is at home. In that scenario we'll be playing four game series with 24 total conference games. It's just a little bit different, we had 32 conference games this year so we're back to 24 but we're still kinda stuck on the four game set. The four game sets are not bad if you don't have to travel and play on Tuesday. If you don't have to go somewhere on Tuesday and Wednesday a doubleheader on Saturday isn't a real big deal. Guys have plenty of time to rest.
bc.net: Talk a little bit about next season and the kids you have coming in and what you think you can build off of based on the momentum you gained this season.
RW: We think that the base has been re-established. It's been hard work and we know the reasons why we dropped off. The two major things were injuries out of the wrong people for two years but also the change to a new league. It takes a while to figure out the way a new league is gonna work. Figure the travel out, figure out the way those teams are going to play. There are advantages you have and they have the same advantages too but I think that by playing you a lot to a certain extent there's a certain disadvantage to knowing how people are going to attack you in the league. Every league has a different umpiring organization, they come from different parts of the country and each organization has a different emphasis level. Some of them have a tight strike zone some of them have a very loose strike zone. Some of them call the balk a lot, some of them don't. Those types of transitions with the league were compounded by our injuries. Our injuries compounded those particular issues.
We think we can be eight or ten wins better a year from now.When you start talking about next year you have Jeff Farnam returning as a kid who didn't get a whole lot of playing time but was probably a better catch/throw guy than Joe Leghorn as far as physical defensive skills. And we have two good quality catchers coming in. [Chris] Auten returns as a projected All-Conference preseason selection. Stout and Marquez up the middle, although we're going to look pretty strongly at Stout moving back to second base some but also we want to see what he can do as a center fielder we think he has skills there. It's kind of a double type thing, one we think he can help this club as a center fielder with his skills but two it's probably his best chance at an opportunity to play professional baseball as a switch hitting center fielder that can run rather than a middle infielder who has shown some inconsistencies as a defender. He was a pretty good defensive shortstop this year but he made a lot of errors and that's not going to help him out there. Then you've got James Lilley returning off of injury. That'll depend an awful lot on what he's done with his rehab. From talking to the trainers he worked very hard but with arm injuries you don't know until the guy comes back and replicates what he did before he got hurt. Third baseman is an arm position, you've gotta be able to throw there. We've also added three or four pretty solid recruits in the infield.
You have [Franky] Busani returning as a right fielder, [Gavin] Heineman who got some playing time early in the year, [Trevor] Bloom is a freshman that got some playing time in the outfield. Those guys will return as pretty good offensive people. They kinda limited their playing time because of their defensive capabilities but they'll have some time to get better in that regard even though they made some quality moves this year in that area. We feel that we've signed a couple of kids that can go get the ball in center field. Again Stout is going to be given a look out there and he may be better than the kids that we've signed but you're always two or three at each position so that you can generate as much competition in the fall as you can for jobs. It makes people better.
Then the pitching staff, we'll see. The draft is around the corner but we think that we'll probably get Tyler Sturdevant back. But Heath Goin and Tyler Sturdevant returning with Erik Nyquist, those three guys were really key guys on the pitching staff. Noah Garza really came on late. He was a kid who pitched a lot for us last year, didn't perform well in the fall or the early spring and kind of got shuffled down in the back of the staff and then got shuffled back up to the top and performed well the last couple of weekends, back to where we expected him to be. He's made some progress that took a little longer than we hoped but it was made and we feel pretty comfortable with him in that role.
Casey Amundson got some time early in the year. He's really got a great arm. He's had some problems with defense and some problems with command. If he figures it out he's got dominating type stuff.
Sebastien Vendette really struggled at times during the year but probably has the best arm even when you include Sturdevant on the staff. He had some trouble with throwing strikes and stuff like that through early part the year. More than anything I think Sebastien got hurt more than any of the guys on the pitching staff from bad defense. Not only did we probably play a little bit worse defense behind him, particularly early in the year, he didn't handle the errors as well. Instead of just taking it in stride and continuing to pitch he had a tendency to try to go strike everybody out and overpitch, avoid the ball being put into play and that's eventually what caused him to lose command and walk too many guys and ended up getting him in trouble. He got much better with dealing with that towards the end of the year. He won two out of his last three. We feel like with those four or five guys in essence can come back and throw half the innings we need to throw. The recruited guys we brought in, we like four or five of those guys and we think are really solid pitchers and the good thing is they're not going to have to come in and be Friday or Saturday type guys. They can come in and ease their way into it.
You assume a lot with pitching. You've got to assume those guys you have, Sturdevant, Goin and Vendette are 1-2-3 and ready to go. Assuming they continue to perform well, assuming they stay healthy and assuming we get through the draft without losing one of those guys. Sturdevant and Vendette have pitched at times where a couple of scouts have showed interest in them. My gut instinct at this point in time is neither one of them will get good enough drafts to warrant not returning. Sturdevant is just a few hours from getting his degree and I've talked to him and it's really important to him. He's excited about the fact that he can come in the fall and take nine hours and get his undergraduate degree and then in the spring as [Jason] Conner did, start to work on his Master's degree.
I think we can pretty reasonably expect it'll be a 50 to 75 home run year..So I think we'll get all those guys back so you've got your top three starters and your top closer returning. If you're really gonna play right now, Garza's probably earned himself the fourth starting spot before you've even seen any of the new guys coming in. The beauty of it is we've got a lot of depth and experience in the pitching staff. I doubt we're gonna be the type of explosive offensive team we were this year just because of the loss of three or four of those guys who were integral parts of it. But I think there's enough returning power that I don't know that we'll go hit 100 home runs again but I don't think we'll hit 20 either. I think we can pretty reasonably expect it'll be a 50 to 75 home run year which puts you in the top 50 and sometimes the top 25 in team categories in that area. More than anything the emphasis has been on increasing the quality of our defensive club. If we've done the things which we think we have done, we think we can be eight or ten wins better a year from now. I think we're going to be a better ballclub, a more competitive ballclub a year from now and the fact that we were able to get the conference tournament jinx out of the way so to speak and get ourselves stabilized. The people that are going to be returned expect to meet and exceed those same expectations and once you've done it once it can be done again and normally is done again.
The only reason we faltered in the first place is that crazy injury year in which we lost 21 players to injury.
We feel like we have good traction going into next year and we have continued to do small things to improve the quality of our stadium. The administration has continued to be supportive and do what they can budget wise to help us be competitive in the league and at least get us to the point where it wasn't like what it used to be. In the early days, I'm giving my guys $12 a day to eat on and the people we're playing are eating on $35. That doesn't seem like that big a deal and why would anybody know, but kids know. One of the big things early one even when we were basically destitute as a program, one thing I insisted on doing was making sure I had enough good baseballs to practice with. That's something that the players notice every day. You walk into Fresno State, they don't have any baseballs that have been out there for three weeks. They don't have any brown baseballs with the covers falling off. They're not hitting those. We don't either. But that was one of the things that I could do to change the perspective of the players within the program and how they look at the program when they're playing with it but also people on the outside looking in. There are a lot of the small things like that we continue to work on.
I'm happy with the fact that my staff looks like it's going to stay in place. I still have to sit down and talk with Mac [McKinley Boston] because this is a contract year. I do know my staff is in place and that's good. One of the things we've had problems with is consistency out of the pitching coach position. Chase Tidwell seems to be happy here. He's still hooked up and ready to go. I'm really happy with the continuity of my coaching staff. That helps out a bunch.