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 weekend sweep over Houston Baptist and the Aggie pitching staff.
bleedCrimson.net: Your thoughts on the weekend overall?
Rocky Ward: Overall I thought we played pretty flat in the start of every game but managed to find a way. We weren't very pleased with what we got out of our pitching staff but again I don't think that anybody, not that the kids didn't prepare, but we were coming off of some pretty intense baseball and it's hard to get back up into that level and we just kind of coasted and managed to do what we needed to do. We played from behind the entire first game but it ended up being a really great baseball game. We stuck with it, we were beaten five different times and managed to tie it and then win it. I thought we grinded it out. They competed hard and they were okay. In Division I baseball you can't bring half your game and expect to win and we kind of did that for the first half of all three games and then finally kind of turned the afterburners on. It's good that we can do that and we've done it on a few occasions throughout the year.
There are a lot of things on the mind of these kids right now. They've got finals week right now, a lot of preparation for final projects and a lot of things that come up with the end of the year and a lot of distractions to go with it. It's a combination of things but overall we did what we needed to do. We won the four and got us to 38 wins and were able to kind of rest a couple guys here and there. Got to see some different combinations of lineups.
bc.net: That was a pretty interesting lineup you sent out on Sunday.
RW: It was a simulated situation, what if a couple guys get sick in Hawai'i. Stout was obviously down anyway but Reynoso had tweaked his hamstring and there wasn't any reason for me to go put him on the field if I wasn't sure he was healthy. He ended up playing in the game and he did fine but I wasn't going to play him unless I had to and I had to. I purposely broke up the team chemistry a bit just to kind of make a point, not in any effort at all to lose the game, what I tell kids is when I put you in the lineup and wherever I put you, I expect you to be able to play. Whether or not you've played there before or not. That's just what I think. Is it fair? Maybe not. But I'm not going to put kids in a situation where I think they're going to fail. When I put Jeff Farnham at center, I know he's not as good as Stout or some other people, he doesn't have as many repetitions, but the kid's an athlete and I expect him to go make the routine stuff and that's what he's done.
This was a little different because it was a big mix. We had several guys on the bench and some of them needed rest. At the end of the game I talked to them about it. I said you've got to be prepared for situations just like this. You don't know in a conference tournament what's going to happen. In the regular season everybody kind of knows if there's a guy down there's time to get him back. In the conference tournament if a guy is down there's no time to get him back, he's down and whoever the next guy is, whatever we ask him to do he's gotta do it. It was a good test for the club. The thing that I've always found as a coach is that it's not the guys that aren't getting full time starts that I worry about. I worry about the guys that are normal starters and how they handle it. They get taken out of their comfort zone. I think that happened a little bit. For gosh sakes we got shut out for six innings by a kid that had an 11.00 ERA. Well, two things happened. The kid pitched well but I think the kids who got starts that haven't played much put too much pressure on themselves and tried to do things that I don't expect them to do and the kids that start all the time all of the sudden felt uncomfortable because they didn't have the normal support around them. I talked to them after the game and said this is what you've got to be able to deal with in a conference tournament situation. It'd be great if you walked into the thing and everybody stays healthy and everybody feels great and the series goes according to plan. But in a six team tournament things can change real fast. If you win straight through you can win it in four straight games. But there are some areas in a six team bracket where you may have to play six. If you lose one you may only have to play five.
When you have an uneven bracket after day one you're going to have three teams that have won and three teams that have lost. And you're going to have losers playing winners in day two and what happens is determined if losers beat the winners and stay or if the winners beat the losers. So at the end of day two you can end up with four teams left or five teams left. Based on that will determine how many games have to be played. It's one of the reasons that the NCAA went back to the NCAA regionals and went back to the 16 four team regionals. They're much more fair. When there were 48 teams in the field there were eight six team regionals. Those things were a bear to win because there were guys that were potentially going to the mound in completely different roles than what they had during the year. Four team regionals, you can't get to a fifth start. The worst case scenario is four games and four starts and that's what you already have [in the regular season]. In a six team tournament you can get to the need to have a fifth or even a sixth start.
But that's kind of the way the day went. The kid piched good but our lineup just had no continuity. I didn't set the lineup to break continuity, I set the lineup based on two or three guys being out with sickness, to simulate that. I didn't intend to do that until Sunday morning, until Reynoso looked like he was going to be okay but was kind of limping around a little bit. I was concerned with playing him and so you make some adjustments. You play Mike Sodders at third because that's where he started and played all fall. We recruited him as a 3B. I already took a big risk at the beginning of the year by taking a guy who had never played the middle infield and put him at second. Obviously that panned out pretty good until he got hurt. But as a third baseman the knee impacts him a little bit less and later in the game because of moves we had to make he ended up at first. Well, that opens up another option for us when we get in the tournament. Mikey's pretty much been only able to DH and we've been real careful with what we've done with him on the field. But maybe that gives me a chance to use him there in different lineups. It gives me another hitter in the lineup. There was value in it and we got it done and the one great thing about it is I talked to the kids and said listen, we didn't handle this very well. I don't want that feeling when we're in the tournament, I don't want panic set in because we don't have a couple guys in the lineup. The one guy that didn't panic and the one guy that recognized what was going on and handled it was Jared Jordan. He went out and was just fabulous. He kept us in the game when we were a bunch of chickens with our heads cut off trying to figure out how to score. We couldn't even bunt anybody over.
bc.net: The doubleheader day. Both of those games you fell behind after the first three innings and then put a few big numbers on the board to induce the run-rule and in the nightcap got a walk-off home run from Stephen Anderson.
RW: I really thought we pitched poorly and put ourselves in a bad position but the strength of this ballclub is that we've trailed a lot. Out of our 38 victories there might have been 30 games in which we trailed. It might not be that many but it's seemed like it. This club doesn't seem to be bothered by the scoreboard and it's part of the way our offense is set up and part of the way our offense works. We really work hard to make the pitcher work the first time through the lineup. We generally try to be patient and see his stuff. One of the worst things a hitter can do to himself is come up in a situation in his third at bat in the fifth or sixth inning with RBIs there and still not having seen a guy's breaking ball, it's just a disadvantage. We worked through that. Their starting pitching was okay, we knew that this whole thing wasn't real good. Guys performed really well offensively in that doubleheader, it was a long day, especially coming off the 13 innings of game one. We were on the yard a little bit longer and it took a lot out of us. I thought they just went out and played and let the game come to them on the offensive side. It was a windy day but that's the biggest thing about this pitching staff. They've handled windy situations better than any staff I've ever had. This has been one of those years that the wind has blown out a lot. I thought it was the first time the pitching staff has let themselves get screwed up by the wind.
bc.net: The first game of the series, you went into it having lost the first game of the series each of the past three weekends and you were looking to reverse that trend. It took 13 innings but you were finally able to pull off the victory.
RW: We made some pitching adjustments. We're trying to position ourselves for the conference tournament and you want to do that now. You're not going to walk in there with a pitching rotation and all of the sudden change. Although when you get to the tournament you've got to be willing to throw guys out of sequence just because of who you're playing and how they match up. We moved D.J. Simon into that hole and the main reason is because when you play in a six team tournament you go through the first four games with your 1, 2, 3 and 4, your four starters and if you go through it clean then the fourth game is for the championship. But if you get beat in that game then you have the "if necessary" game and in that game if you're playing to win a conference championship you don't go to your five guy, you go back to your number one guy. Sturdevant has been in that role but the problem is that you have to go off of two days rest and he could do that but he's a kid that had an arm injury, he's a pro prospect and I don't want to do that to him. D.J. Simon rebounds real well and can go on short rest a little bit better and they're real similar pitchers. D.J.'s had a little better year statistically. They're real similar type pitchers and so they're interchangeable in that role and so we changed the weekend rotation, it had been Sturdevant, Jordan, Simon and then Vendette and Vendette had kind of ended up in the four hole because a month ago he got a little sore and we pushed him back a day or two and there was no reason to change it. It's kind of nice to have an experienced guy on the last day to stabilize the series if needed or win the series if you can. So we went back and changed the rotation and moved Simon to Friday, Vendette into the two hole with Sturdevant in the three hole and the Jordan in the four which is the way we'd like to attack the conference tournament. Again, it's mainly because we feel that D.J. Simon has a little bit of an advantage coming off two days rest and it puts Jared Jordan who's been one of our more successful guys, when you look at numbers he's 7-1, 3.53 ERA, that would put Jared Jordan in the championship game and I'm pretty comfortable with that guy there. The only risk that you take in that setup, and we've talked to the guys about it, the only risk you take is if you get beat in the first two games and you're out, then Sturdevant and Jordan never make it to the mound. Well, that's a bad way to manage I think, based on negative contingencies. But we think that it's a nice setup and that's what we'll continue to do for the next two weekends. Then when we play against La. Tech in two weeks, because of the travel for us to go back across the country and back across the ocean to get to Hawai'i, we're playing those games Thursday, Friday, Saturday and we'll play the doubleheader Thursday. That allows us to go with Simon and Vendette and they're two really different kind of pitchers and it just sets up the rest that's needed to get into the conference tournament so that when they're pitching the conference tournament they're at full rest and full strength.
Back to game one, D.J. wasn't real good but our offense wasn't real good either. He'd given up five runs and he had some command problems which is not really his thing. He usually throws strikes and puts the ball in play and he struggled some and part of that might have been the change to a different preparation. The one thing about pitching in a series you already have seen from dugout the opponent perform for a game or two. It gives you a little bit more recent information as to how you're going to attack the hitters. The Friday night guy doesn't get that. In baseball you don't get the scout. You can't go scout opponents, there are no game films. You pretty much go off of players you may have seen the year before. You don't know anything about the new guys and you try to watch their abtting practice to get information and it's real vague. All guys see in batting practice are fastballs. You don't know how well they handle the breaking ball or the change. But through their mechanical setup and application we're pretty good at assessing what guys can hit, if they're low ball, high ball, in or out hitters. But opening night, the Friday game, is tougher to pitch because you don't know much about the opponent. So it may have been partially that. When you're the Friday night guy you kind of carry the stress of the upcoming series a little more than the other guys. You kind of have to sit there for the three or four days, and I understand the other guys do to, but the emotional part of it is just different. The thing about it is he'll have another couple opportunities as the opening guy and we expect him to get more comfortable in that role. And when you get to the conference tournament you're not going against guys you don't know, you're going against guys you've already faced and you have a book on everybody and there'll be less disadvantage for him when we get into the conference tournament.
bc.net: Houston Baptist generated a fair number of runs this weekend but after the weekend of play, you're second in the league in ERA.
RW: The offensive conditions were good. I thought guys didn't make some pitches that they should have. When I looked at the humidity on Friday it was 4%. What that means is that the field gets really dried out and hard. D.J. gave up five or six ground ball basehits that rocketed through the infield because it was so hard. There's not much you can really do about that because whatever water you put on the field evaporates really quickly and so it's hard to get it soft. On Friday night we tried to flood the field a little bit to get some water down deeper into the grass. Once you get to this time of the year when the humidity is real low and the heat comes up it's real hard to keep the field from playing faster. It just plays real fast. We gave up a few runs that we shouldn't have but it was probably going to be a real high scoring weekend anyway just with the humidity being low and the wind blowing out at 25 or 30 mph. We played probably eight or 10 of the innings this weekend where we had a pretty solid 25 or 30 mph winds. I think we got impacted more by the hard hit ground ball. They [Houston Baptist] competed. They're a bunch of Texas kids, they're pretty hard nosed kids and they play hard.
I'm still happy with where my pitching staff is. I don't think they've pitched terribly well in a couple spots in the last two or three weeks but overall as a unit they've been good.