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 we talked with Coach Ward about the weekend against Louisiana Tech, D.J. Simon earning his second WAC Pitcher of the Week honor, the other Aggie starting pitchers' performance on the weekend and playing Fresno State in the first game of the WAC tournament.
bleedCrimson.net: D.J. Simon was named WAC Pitcher of the Week, his second this season, for his complete game shutout performance against Louisiana Tech.
Rocky Ward: He pitched a pretty important game. From our standpoint he'd struggled his last couple of outings so it was great to see him go out and have a good outing. That's all you're really looking for. There was a lot at stake this weekend with the weekend games but once we'd lost the first game and it looked like San Jose was going to win it kind of took the chance of winning the league off he board and then you kind of focus on playing the best baseball you could and guys having good quality outings. That game of course we knew that if we won that game it gave us the bid to the tournament and it was good to get it done. He did it under a little pressure, he did it on the road and did it against one of the teams that had proven to be one of the top in the league and did it with something to play for and we needed it pretty badly. They got after us in the first game. We needed to come back and get off our butts, pick ourselves off the ground. I didn't expect a shutout but we got it. Our offense got after them with 10 in the first and he came out and pitched good baseball which is sometimes hard to do. When the offense gives you that many runs it's hard to keep your edge. It concerned me a little bit when he came out in the first but he got through that inning clean and we scored another three and he gives us a zero and then another three and all of the sudden it's 16-0 and he's rolling. At that point he just continued to pitch and had a good baseball game.
It was important for a lot of reasons, it guaranteed us a spot in the tournament, got us some momentum in the series and got him back on the good side of the win column. A lot of times the Pitcher of the Week or Player of the Week is done so much on the numbers and not so much on the importance of the importance. His numbers were good but I also think it's great he got the award because we understood how important of an outing it was for our team.
bc.net: The 16-0 victory was an impressive bounce back after Louisiana Tech clearly had the momentum going into the second game of the doubleheader with the come-from-behind victory and ending the game on a strike 'em out throw 'em out double play (Jeff Farnham striking out, Richard Stout getting thrown out at second).
RW: We've done it pretty consistently throughout the year but you just don't know. That was kind of a tough loss. We've had some tough losses and when you're a good baseball team that's all you have. You have tough losses, close games. Most of the games we've played throughout the year have been pretty close and so when you get beat they're going to be pretty tough losses. But we had a lead early in the game and we squandered three or four offensive innings and let them get back in the game and really didn't maintain good focus and let them get back in it and let them get back to the topside in their home park and I just thought we didn't play with as much intensity as I hoped we would. I challenged the ballclub after the game. I was a little angry with them because I just didn't think they were ready to play and I was surprised with how they played in the middle of that game in particular offensively. I didn't think they were failing because of any pressure, I just didn't think they were very focused. That's something this club has always done. This club has always been focused. It's the first time that they just kind of tried to go through the motions of the game and it cost them the game. I challenged them between games and they came out and got after it. It was important, it took the pressure off us from the standpoint of being in the tournament.
It's crazy, it's not that we didn't expect to be in the tournament, we just knew that a lot of good teams out there were in range. We knew that what happened to Nevada could have happened to us. They [Nevada] went from second to last [sixth, last team in the tournament] and Fresno goes from last to third in a four game stretch. We basically as it turned out went from fourth to third so we went up. But because of the tiebreaking procedure we end up with the 4-seed in the tournament but we still finished tied for third in the conference and that's good. It's our first top three finish in the WAC.
It's important for future ballclubs that the team has been in that position before. It makes it easier and raises the expectations for future ballclubs for what they should be able to do. It's the same thing in life, to do it the very first time is always difficult to do, especially if it's something that has meaning. It's easier once you've done it once to do it again because you just don't have those mental barriers.
I would have liked to have won that first game to see how my ballclub would react with the the chance to play the next three days with the possibility of a share for the conference title. It didn't work out that way but overall we did fine with the weekend and we can be proud of the way we finished and we can be proud of the way the year went.
bc.net: There was an interesting coaching decision at the end of the first doubleheader game to send the game two starter out to finish game one. That's actually the third time in league play this year that an opposing coach has brought a starter in to close out a game against you. He brought him back out to start game two which obviously didn't work out too well.
RW: I think it shows how much respect people have for our offense. In the previous two games they brought the last day starter in. Hawai'i did it and Fresno did it. I think it showed that they're concerned with how dangerous we are offensively late in games. Nobody feels very comfortable against my offense. Even with the lead late they feel like they've got to bring the best that they have. In all three cases that managing like you would in a tournament. This was the first time that somebody tried to finish the nine inning game and then bring him back to start. That's hard to do because you've got to sit for 45 minutes and get reheated again. I don't know. Historically I haven't seen it work very often. Other people have done it before but when he came back off that break he really didn't have the same type of stuff. And it's a different mental preparation. It changes a pitcher's entire prep. When he knows he has to start the game then he preps himself throughout the day to bring his emotional level up to where it needs to be when he starts. I think when you bring a guy in to relieve like that it changes his whole mental approach.
It's like I've said to my own team, "guys, I expect you to do what I ask you to do. Jeff Farnham, if I need to you to play second base for an inning, I don't expect you to be the best second baseman in the league, I just expect you to play it and do the best job you can." I wouldn't put them in a situation they can't handle and I'm sure that's the same way Wade [Simoneaux] felt about the move.
You never know whether or not it had impact or not. It's real easy to look back at a decision like that. When he comes in and closes and gets the save and then comes out in the first and gives up 10 runs. I don't know how much that really influenced it.
I think early in my coaching career we had a doubleheader where I did that and my guy didn't respond very well in the second game. If I remember, I think he came in and blew the save. It was a long time ago, 11 or 12 years ago. We didn't have much pitching depth and it looked like we could win the doubleheader if we could close out that game and we ended up losing both out of the deal and I kind of told myself at the time that I probably wouldn't like to do that again.
I've seen guys do it and have success but I think it takes a very special player that understands how to psychologically deal with it.
bc.net: For your pitching staff, the three starters that got roughed up last weekend against San Jose State bounced back with very good weekends this past weekend. Jared Jordan, even though he didn't pick up the win pitched very well and Tyler Sturdevant who had struggled a little in the last four outings came out and pitched the way you want him to pitch and you also got a strong outing out of Jake Wilson after resting him a couple weekends.
RW: Yeah, there are things this weekend that are good. You can plan things all you want but in athletics and competition you don't know what's going to happen. As a coach you can hope and try to set up scenarios to allow the best success you can but once the game starts you lose control of that and the players have to play. Looking back at it the series we got an awful lot accomplished with the series in our pitching staff. Those guys needed good outings. The guy that had kind of been doing pretty good, Sebastien [Vendette] didn't have a real good outing but I don't worry about him very much. I don't think Sebastien fit La. Tech very well. I don't think his stuff fit that team very well. That doesn't give him an excuse but I think their hitters kind of liked his stuff better than the other guys. That's good to find out because in the conference tournament you try to avoid Sebastien going up against La. Tech. He's got a lot of other teams he's done really well against. That's a lot of what we'll be doing when we go up against teams in the tournament.
We've announced D.J. Simon as the starter going up against Fresno. The last time against Fresno he shut them out 2-0. They're a different ballclub than what they were when we played them a month ago. They've got different guys playing a little more, they've got pretty good momentum and they're playing pretty good baseball of late. To go from last to third, and they played with a lot on the line those first two games against Sacramento. Sacramento didn't roll over. Those were pretty good baseball games. Sac had them beat a couple of times and just couldn't close them.
I think it was important that those three guys had good outings. For their own psyche? Sure. But for the ballclub's trust and feeling good about what we need to do to go into Hawai'i. We knew all along that we were going to play the last three weekends of conference season against pretty good offensive ballclubs in offensive ballparks. So I was really pleased with what they did at La. Tech. That's a small park. If the wind's not blowing in there, which is the prevailing wind, it's really small. I thought they did really a nice job in the series and now you get to go to a pretty nice pitcher's yard. It's just good that guys can feel good about themselves and feel like they can go into Hawai'i and where they're going to get a break finally.
In game one [against La. Tech] we gave up a couple home runs. Dageford's got pretty good power but the fly ball he hit was to right and it's 341 feet. That's not very far. That's right center. It kind of got the cheap home run in the park but that's part of being in an offensive ballpark.
Overall I thought they did a nice job and I'm really happy with the momentum we gained. We played good quality defense and our offense was good. They were a unique ballclub to attack. They had four right-handed starters and then basically every reliever was a left-hander. So I tried to attack them a little differently than I have in the past from the standpoint that I started my left-handers. Ben Harty didn't start a game all weekend and he's been starting all year. Ben's been struggling some but a lot of it's also the simple fact that they had left-handers and I wasn't going to be able to use my typical left-handers off the bench, they weren't going to be available to me off the bench. The only way I was going to get value out of Decater and Jordan and those guys was to start them.
I didn't like the way those lineups meshed but I think it was important to set that up because we may be in the same situation in the tournament. And Hawai'i is a ballpark that favors the left-handed hitter. The right-handed hitter that pulls the ball, like Marquez or Reynoso, it's a tough park for them. That's the only real concern I have about this whole thing is that my best middle of the lineup guy is probably going to have the biggest disadvantage in that park. But the other thing about that ballpark is that center field is not real deep. Where you really get hurt is when balls are hit into the left-centerfield gap, they just go out there and die. But if you hit the ball straightaway, which B-Mar has done, he's had several home runs that are just straightaway home runs, you don't lose as much carry when the ball is hit straightaway.
It was a good weekend. We'd like to have been able after game one to at least be able to make a run at San Jose and the conference championship. It didn't work out that way but overall it was nice weekend for us.
bc.net: That first matchup on Thursday it looks like they're going to send Matt Morse to the mound who was the other pitcher in that 2-0 pitcher's duel that your team won in Fresno. It looks like it'll be a little bit of a rematch.
RW: We played Fresno so much last year that it was kind of funny. When we were first in the league you first have to earn your stripes and I think we really earned our stripes through playing Fresno a year ago. It proved we could play in this league because we went in and own three games against them at their ballpark and I think that earned the respect of the conference. Does that really mean anything? Yeah, I think it does. People look at you a little bit different and you look at yourself a little bit different. You kind feel like you belong a little bit more and we followed that up with a pretty good season this year where we've proved even more to people that we belong in this league. It's one of those things that you're trying to get established.
We did it in the Sun Belt, we got ourselves established to the point where people were concerned with what they were going to get when they played us. They had to get ready to play. That's a good thing. It bodes well for the future of the program.
We're going to go see what we can do in Hawai'i in this tournament. There's still things that are in our way. We talk about firsts. We have not won a conference tournament game in the WAC yet. To do anything for the first time is difficult. It won't be an easy task but I think it's going to be one of those things that if we win the first game and get that out of the way a lot like we did in 2002 when we walked into the tournament for the first time in school history and won the first game, then you kind of take the pressure off and you go play. And that's what we did and we played ourselves to a conference championship. It was an unlikely result but it all came down to the fact that we played well in the first game and got ourselves some momentum in the tournament.
It's the hardest thing. Every coach is concerned about going into the tournament and getting that first win. Getting established in the tournament. It's hard to lose the first game and all of the sudden play for the rest of your season the rest of the tournament. That's another thing that made the Fresno State run [last year] so amazing is that they had to play in elimination games several times through their run at the World Series title. That's what made it so impressive. They had to play a lot of those games that if you don't win you're done and they won every one of them.