bleedCrimson.net will be conducting weekly in season interviews with Aggie head baseball coach Rocky Ward as the Aggies take aim at a conference championship and a trip to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003. This week in part one of our interview we talked with Coach Ward about the split with Nevada and his overall thoughts on where his team stands.
bleedCrimson.net: Your thoughts on the Nevada series?
Rocky Ward: It was a good baseball series. Nevada's got a good quality offensive club, their numbers are better than what they show. They really played a tough early schedule in some venues and they've been hot of late. They scored a whole bunch of runs down at La. Tech to open the year to get three out of four which looks bigger now that Fresno walked in there and got swept in four. Then they swung the bat really well against Hawai'i. I think they had three double figure games. I thought it was pretty good. We split the weekend and if you go on the road in those two locations [Fresno and Reno] with the history and tradition that we've fought through throughout the years, you're satisfied with what we did. But at the same time we had a chance to win six or seven of them and they were all great baseball games. They weren't quite the level of intensity that we'd faced in Fresno for four games because the crowd and what Fresno had done a year ago. Nevada was a little different. First game we tied early and then it kind of got away from us. Then we did the same thing to them in game two. And then three and four were both pretty tight. We continue to get really great performances out of D.J. Simon, it seems like every time we need it, he gets it done. The Sunday game was a lot like game one against Fresno where we came from behind and scored a bunch late but then couldn't hold it. That was just baseball stuff. I didn't think our guys played poorly. There was only one play that was impacted by some stuff. We lost [Richard] Stout on Saturday to a pulled oblique muscle which is basically a ribcage pull so he wasn't available to us on Sunday. We had a fly ball that was foul that we couldn't get to and probably would have made the play if I'd had the personnel. It's one of those things, it's a foul ball we don't get to and then they hit the ball off the end of the bat to center to score a run. Then the next guy hits a home run and you're going, "Geez, if that play gets made, we probably win." Instead he got on base and the home run became the game winner.
Overall the weekend was fine. We competed extraordinarily well, it's still a very good road team. We've done well on the road, we're 10-4, 4-4 in league on the road. In this conference, historically if you're able to split your road games and win three of four at home it'll put you in the top two or three on a pretty consistent basis. And if you can find a way to win three of four or sweep somewhere then it puts you into the conference championship race and through 12 games we're a half game out and we can't complain too much.
bc.net: In game one the story of the game was the runs that Nevada scored with two outs.
RW: It's one of those things that kind of cyclical. Their offense has been pretty hot. Baseball, if you look at the game closely, is designed for runs to be scored with two outs. There are coaches that use up outs through the bunt or other ways in order to get runners in scoring position so it's kind of designed that way. I've never been a big guy to look at how many runs are scored with two outs. We score a ton of runs, historically, with two outs because you're setting up the inning. The longer you go in the inning the more likely with two outs, there are going to be several pitches thrown, the weaker the pitcher is. When somebody scores all the runs with two outs then somebody perks up and looks at it. They did a nice job. They got some momentum. Tyler Sturdevant did okay, he wasn't great. He didn't have his best stuff. I thought it was a real gutsy performance. He was throwing on a day's short rest because of the way the trip was set up. He's going from Friday to Thursday instead of Friday to Friday. It usually doesn't impact guys to much but I think he was a little worn out from the emotion of the Fresno series. He was a little flat but I thought he gutted it out pretty good. He pitched a good baseball game not having his best stuff.
bc.net: Game two you came back and you get another phenomenal performance from D.J. Simon. That was a real pivotal point in the weekend for you because still have not lost back to back games this season.
RW: To be honest, I was thinking about it that day. I'm going, you know I'm feeling kinda crappy about the way we played on Thursday but we haven't lost back to back games. It's another opportunity, another challenge, another opportunity to see how tough your kids are and how long can they stay with their back against the wall. D.J. has been Mr. Automatic. He goes out and keeps us in the game and we had one of better offensive days. We went out and did a nice job and won the game going away and actually that was the only game we played the whole weekend where we got an inning or two to relax. We went up 9-3 and got the game under control and then gave up a few runs late that were inconsequential in trying to get a couple guys some work and they didn't do a real good job in that case. But we again were able to win that one pretty handily. They were never able to get the tying run to the plate and that's kind of the difference. Any time you've got to face tying run at the plate when you're on the road then the game is in real jeopardy. But until that time it's not much significance. It's just about letting the game be played out and we did that. It was a good quality game.
bc.net: Jared Jordan went to the hill in game three, he gave up two runs early but then really shut them down the rest of the game. He's had a couple games like that this season where he's given up a run or two early but then shut the other team down.
RW: He's really done a nice job. We were a little concerned with him, he'd got beaten around a little bit at Fresno and came off that game with a little elbow tenderness. He really pitched a good baseball game. That final score was not real indicative of how good we were that day. We started the game off with a line drive double play to the third baseman. A foot higher or a foot to the left or the right and it's in the corner and we're off to the races again carrying the momentum from the previous day. But we hit into three double plays, two of them were rockets and we hit into eight or nine line drive outs. We did not have very good hitting luck, in fact we had terrible hitting luck throughout the entire day but we were still able, through quality defense and pitching and timely hitting later on, to be able to win a game that was a relatively low scoring game. But we had them on the run the whole game, we just couldn't get the knockout blow. Every time we had a chance, somebody hit a line drive at somebody. We weren't striking out or hitting ground ball two hoppers, they weren't easy outs but they still look the same in the scorebook.
bc.net: That game was a 5-3 final. WIth this year's pitching staff, you're able to win those low scoring games a lot more often than maybe some of your other teams are able to do.
RW: Yeah, we're a better defensive ball club. We're not great, we're not perfect. Right now we're playing backup people at second base and they're doing a good job. Wes [Schneider] and Justin [Lucero] have really done a fine job. But when we use Justin, he's kind of our late inning defensive replacement in the outfield so it kind of takes that defensive move late in the game away from us. And Leo Aguirre with his knee the way it is, is a couple steps short as an outfielder. He makes the plays he gets to. The first game against Fresno he had a ball that was hit hard over the top of his head, he ran and made a real nice play that was over the shoulder. But he's still a couple steps short of where he is when he's at full health. Then in Sunday's game, we lost Stout on Saturday, so we're down a couple guys and our defense is a little weaker than what it has been. The replacement guys, Chace Perkins' play in the Nevada series was outstanding and that was great because he's from around there and he had a lot of family and friends in town. He really played well. Leo had tweaked his knee at Fresno and so with two left handed starters for Nevada, I was able to give him another couple days rest on that knee and I was able to give Chace Perkins the start for only his third start of the season.
As a pitching staff and a defense, even with some of our guys banged up right now, I think really it's impacted us more on the offensive side than the defensive side. Stout, when you look at what he's done for us offensively, he's second in the country in runs scored heading into last weekend. Plus his overall numbers are fabulous. He's leading the league in stolen bases, then you take that guy out of the mix, a quality leadoff guy. But when you look up, Jeff Farnham's got some of the same type of abilities. The problem is when you've gotta lead off Jeff Farnham, you take away a guy that is a really quality RBI guy too. He can do both, he's got 15 stolen bases, seven or eight home runs and a lot of RBIs. So when you take him and put him in the one hole, you lose one of those guys that you trust to drive runs in. So we're working through it.
So yeah, it's important. We've known all along that we've got to play in Hawai'i [for the WAC tournament], the most difficult offensive yard in the league for sure and maybe one of the top 10 most difficult in the country to play in as far as scoring runs. We feel pretty good about our chances when we get there. We're at home for the next three weeks playing under desert baseball conditions and we should see our offensive numbers peak up a little bit again. It's kinda what I said early in the year. What I was most excited about through the first 20 games was the scoring margins. We're used to winning games at New Mexico State 15-14 not 15-2. It was 15-2 and 8-1 and 12-3. Those are a combination of being able to pitch and play defense as well as put up runs and when your offense isn't under continual pressure to cover an average defense then they can relax and sometimes produce at a higher rate.
bc.net: Then game four you were down 4-1 heading into the 8th inning and put up six runs to go up 7-4.
RW: We got six consecutive hits, double, double, single, home run, home run, home run and all of the sudden you've got six runs on the board and still no outs. You're leading 7-4, you've got them on the run and 90 percent of the time the game would be won at that point. And baseball kind of came up and bit us a little bit. We got six on the board, they come up in the eight and go 3-0 on the hitter and Jake [Wilson] comes back and strikes him out. Then he goes two strikes on a guy, he comes back and fouls a couple balls off and then hits one off his hands that goes just out of the reach of [Bryan] Marquez into shallow left. Then you get another ball off the end of the bat to center for a basehit. The guy's done what he's supposed to do, he's pitched well, you've got first and second with one out and he's given up a couple squibbers. Just bad baseball luck. The second basehit was a soft line drive that was just out of the reach of Marquez. Another six inches and it would have been a short hop that would have turned it into a fairly easy double play to end the inning. Instead it goes into left. Then the play I mentioned earlier where a left handed hitter popped up to left and it was gonna be foul by about 10 feet but Leo couldn't get there with the bad leg, he kinda mis-broke on it and couldn't get there, then Marquez got there but tried to make a basket catch and it went off the end of his glove and we don't get the out. Then the next pitch the guy hits the ball off the end of the bat into center to score one run to make it 7-5 and then the next pitch the guy hits out. The guy that hit the ball out of the yard was a defensive replacement that they put into right field when they were up 4-1. He hadn't had an at bat the entire series. He just went and got on top of one of Jake's fastballs and hit a line drive for a home run in his first at bat of the series, first home run of the season. They go up 8-7 on that and you really didn't feel like you did anything wrong. I thought guys competed well.
I try to explain to some people, it's just a baseball game. We really did some special things in the top of the 8th and baseball just bit us. A couple balls just out of reach and one play that couldn't get made because Stout was out and I couldn't make my normal defensive move in left because I just didn't have any players left. If Stout is in center and I make my normal defensive moves, then Lucero is in left and Lucero makes that play easy. It isn't about disrespecting [Leo] Aguirre, it's just saying that I had to keep an injured player that's a couple steps short of his range in the game because of another injury.
So yeah, we're disappointed with it because we thought we had gotten it done. Really looking back at the series we're happy with the way we played. The level of the play was outstanding. It was the type of play where you have to be able to maintain during the conference tournament. Every game is played at that level and we did it on the road in front of two of the more difficult crowds to play in front of. We did it for eight games in a row. The way I look it, if those had been neutral site games, we would have won seven out of the eight. The homefield advantage came into play in three games. That's saying something. Had we won the last one and won five out of eight it would have been a great trip and we would have been sitting at the top of the league today. Instead we're a half game behind San Jose in second while Hawai'i and Nevada are tied for first. But that's what this league is about. There's all kinds of parity. La. Tech going into the weekend looked like they were dead in the water and they go out and sweep Fresno at La. Tech and you look at the scores, they just annihilated a pretty good pitching staff.
It's an interesting league right now. All of the sudden with Hawai'i coming into town and we're back in the same position that we were in last weekend with No. 1 and No. 2 going head to head and that's what you want. You want that opportunity. There's a pretty good opportunity that for the next two [conference] series, if things work out the way we'd like them to work out that it'll be two top tier teams playing [San Jose State in three weeks]. I think it's all great preparation for my ball club. Whatever we thought we might have been missing early in the year by playing a lot of home games early in the year and against a couple opponents that turned out not to be as good as we'd hoped they would be. When you schedule, you schedule a couple years in advance and you have a general idea of where the opponent might be but you never know. Hartford is a good example. I thought they'd play better than they did. I thought they'd be a team that would win 20 to 25 games once they got back in the Northeast and back into their level of competition. This little stretch is the best thing that could have happened for us. We survived it, we played well and I think it proved... even if it didn't prove anything to the fans or the media, I think it did, it proved a lot to us. It proved that we were good enough to go take on the best people in the league and survive.