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. In part two of this week's interview we talked with Coach Ward about the other first round matchups, Jeff Farnham and Bryan Marquez being named as national award semifinalists and the impact of having players who are in the tournament for the first time.
bc.net: The first round matchups other than yours are also very intriguing with SJSU/Nev, La. Tech/UH and NMSU/Fresno. In two of the matchups the higher seeded teams clearly have to feel like they've got at the very least a psychological advantage because they both swept series against the opponent.
RW: Well, yes they do but we also have the wonder of baseball and that my mother in my life said a hundred times a year she'd yell at a hitter and say, "You're due Johnny!" And that simply meant he was 0 for his last 10. But she was also around baseball long enough to know that consistency in our game is tough to maintain. It's really hard to beat a team a fourth or fifth time in a row. Now you have those setups. The crazy thing is if they'd lost to Nevada, they'd be playing against Hawai'i in the first round. The two things you don't want to have to do in the first round of the tournament is you don't want to have to play the 1-seed and you don't want to have to play the host. That's just a standard no-brainer. But at the same time San Jose's gotta play a team they just beat four times at home. You think it's a psychological advantage. In the first couple innings of that baseball game, if San Jose scores early, then I think the psychological advantage matters. If Nevada scores early you better watch out. Baseball has a tendency to come around. It's like we've said a lot, the best team in the Major League Baseball gets beat by the worst team in Major League Baseball every year. And not just once usually. As a result you kind of have that in play in those first two games.
In the La. Tech and Hawai'i game, I'm sure La. Tech's not terribly happy. They get the double whammy. They get the host team and they get a team they swept four. You can look at it any way you've gotta look at it but you've still got to convince your players that every game and every pitch and every inning is different than what you've played before. But you know in playing this game that it does matter. We played Sacramento last year in the losers' bracket having beat them four times at their place and we lose. I was concerned with it. I'm going, "this team has something to prove." We're both coming off of losses and they beat us.
I think the entire tournament is going to be outstanding because of the parity in the league. You've gotta think San Jose State's proven as the number one seed walking through the league that they have the best talent. But I think they're going to feel like the first game is a must win for them. And it's not going to be a tradition No. 1 vs. No. 6. It's not going to be where you can go down line pitching, you can go to your number two or three guy and just walk over a team. It's not going to work. At the same time, they started Jack Adams in game one against Nevada and got a complete game win in his second start of the year. I don't know if they have an injury or if Sam [Piraro] was just setting himself up for the tournament. I don't know. There's so many different things you have to do in preparing your rotation for the tournament. You can't just go in saying No. 1 the first day, No. 2 the second day, you have some responsibilities as a coach to get the best matchups and that's what we'll do.
bc.net: Last week you had two players named to three semifinalist lists for postseason awards. Bryan Marquez for Brooks Wallace (shortstop) and Dick Howser (Player of the Year) and Jeff Farnham for the Johnny Bench Award (catcher).
RW: Yeah, we've never had two. We've been fortunate. I've had some pretty good top level players in the program. Billy Becher was nominated and actually made finalist for Player of the Year, we've had a couple guys in those honors but never two on the same ballclub. It's a neat deal. The Johnny Bench Award for top catcher of the year, Jeff really deserves. His numbers are outstanding both on the offensive side and his throw out numbers. People just don't run on him. The running game against us really isn't a factor at all. It's two-fold, people feel like the stolen base isn't of real value because they feel like they have to score a few more runs than playing for one run because of our offense. But Jeff also makes it a risky proposition. I don't think he's given up but a couple stolen bases in league play. He's really deserving.
Bryan Marquez to put up the kind of numbers that he has both as an offensive player but also the numbers that he has on defense, I believe he's had a streak this year of 17 games without an error. That's hard to do as a shortstop. There's so many chances and so many difficult plays that you have to be able to make.
We'll see whether or not they can make it into a finalist spot. Whether or not they get to the finals will depend not on what they do but with what this team does. We're talking about that to a certain extent with Player of the Year and conference Player of the Year. Bryan Marquez is our candidate for the conference Player of the Year. Well Kyle Bellows is the candidate from San Jose. Certain voters out there won't vote for a guy unless the team has success. Certain voters will vote for Kyle Bellows because his team won the league championship. I think what we do in the conference tournament might determine how many people will vote for Bryan and for Jeff for these awards. To be honest, finishing third in this league only behind La. Tech and clearly within reach at one point of San Jose, if we had finished as the five or six seed it would have really put their chances in jeopardy. But you finish in the three spot and if we win the conference tournament I think it gives them great chances. Their numbers are good enough if you compare them with the other guys. If you add team success to that and an NCAA Regional it'll increase their chances a whole bunch for those honors.
Most of the time individual honors like this are garnered based not just on their performance but how their teammates interact. Any hitter knows that his success has a lot to do with what type of season a guy hitting behind him has. If you have a guy hitting in the lineup behind you that doesn't have very much power or hasn't proven the ability to drive in runs, they're just going to pitch around you. Part of the reason Bryan and Jeff have had great numbers is because Farnham, most of the time before the Stout injury, was hitting in front of Marquez. Bryan Marquez being on deck helped Jeff's numbers. Ben Harty for a period time being behind Bryan Marquez and we've had Farnham in that spot some, we've had Reynoso in that spot some, we've had Sodders in that spot some, that's probably where we're going to keep him. Mike Sodders helps protect Bryan Marquez. You might walk the guy with 22 home runs but then you're going to have to face the guy with 13 and who leads the team in doubles and only has 15 or so less RBIs. So the way lineups are set up impacts a lot of those things.
I'll give you an example, I played in the year that Robin Ventura hit in 58 straight games. The thing I found out that I realized is that it was great and it was great being involved in it but the ballclub was invested in it. We had to play well in order to get him at bats. I remember specifically when he was around 30-some or maybe 40 in that hitting streak being at KU and he was 0 for 4 and he made the last out in the top of the eighth inning and we were leading by six or eight. We all knew in that dugout that Robin was 0 for 4 and we were leading the game and we had to turn the lineup over. We had to go score three or four more runs to get him another at bat, which we did and he got a base hit and the streak continued. That was a specific time when I finally realized that this wasn't just what Robin was doing it was about the fact that he needed us as a team to continue to give him those chances.
I remember a statistic, Ray Ortiz was the kid who hit in front of Robin on that team and Ray, if I remember right, there were several occasions where Robin did not have a hit, where Ray Ortiz had to get a hit or had to get on base to give Robin a chance to continue the streak and he did it every time. Talk about pressure. You're not the one on the hitting streak, you're not the hot one but you're the one who has to get on base to give him the opportunity to continue the streak. Most hitting streaks have several opportunities where you're 0 for going into your last at bat. I thought that Ray was amazing.
The player of the year candidates are their for their performance but their also there because what their teammates have done to support them and if they get into a finalist position it'll be because of what their teammates have done to get them more recognition.
bc.net: How much of an impact is the fact that you have a fairly significant number of new players that weren't on the team last year help in not having that past history to deal with?
RW: You have both. You have both situations, you have guys that are going to go into this for the first time and they don't have to carry as much baggage as the guys who were there before. At the same time the guys that were there before have those lessons to learn. They know how they prepared themselves the last time they were in the tournament. They know how they prepared themselves the last time they were in Hawai'i and they have a little a little advantage in that they can change the way their preparation went. At the same time even the new players know the history. History is important. It's important in daily life, it's very important within ballclubs to understand. I've found that I've had more success in managing teams from being straightforward and honest with them and to talk about what's real. Part of their responsibility, every year I talk to the teams, "You're standing on the shoulders of the players that have come before you." Those guys that went to a conference tournament for the first time, those guys that beat a number one team in the country for the first time, those teams that finished at the top of the league for the first time, you owe a lot to them for putting you into a position to have the success that you're looking forward to. I think we have a very nice mix of guys.
I know that Bryan Marquez and Jeff Farnham and pretty much my entire pitching staff, the eight seniors, a year ago I think they were proud that they got the ballclub to a conference tournament but I know they were very disappointed in how they handled themselves when they got there. They did go there kind of with an "I'm glad to be there" attitude and those kids will not, they'll get on the airplane tomorrow and head to Hawai'i with the idea that they want bigger and better than what they were able to accomplish before. I think bringing some of those other guys along with them.
This is a ballclub that's bought in. They had three or four interviews today and talking about the tournament and you get questions about taking a big offensive team into a defensive park and my response has been all along that I think my pitching staff is a strong point on this team. I think my pitching depth is a strong point on this team. We've lost some Friday games that I wish we wouldn't have but we've won most Sundays. We've felt like we've had a pretty good pitching advantage when we get to Sunday. So the deeper we get into the tournament the more dangerous we become, I think the stronger we become. The key game will be game one. It is really for everybody else but I think more for us. It represents the Friday game, the first game of a four game set. If we can win on Thursday in that first game I think that we'll be a tough team to beat but we have to get through that first one. I'm hopeful that the older guys, they'll all be prepared to play.
The concern you have with baseball is you can go get prepared to play but your first 10 at bats can be line rocket outs. Or you can go make a good slider on the black and the guy dumps it over the first baseman's head and gets a two out, two RBI base hit. Those are things that you can't control in the game of baseball. What you can control is how you deal with them. I think I've got a ballclub that's prepared for that. I know that the ballclub a year ago was not. I didn't know that going in but looking back at it they really were just happy to be there and you take responsibility as a coach allowing your ballclub to get to the point where just getting to a tournament is okay. It's not what we talk about. We talk about preparing for the tournament and going there to win. We've been talking about it all season but really have been preparing for it the last four weeks. Every single team meeting has been a discussion about how right now we're trying to win baseball games but we're preparing for those four games we have to play in Hawai'i and these are the things we have to do to win there.
We have to be patient as an offense team. We can't go out and give up at bats, we have to be a tough out every time. We can't just go out and expect the middle of our lineup is going to hit bombs every time. I think guys have to understand it's a little bit more difficult yard to play but I've mentioned this several times early in the year, this is the best team I've ever had that we feel confident that we can win the 3-2 games and the 5-4 game. We've always been comfortable when the score gets up to 10-9, we've won most of those. That's what the tradition and history has been, that's what we used to have to win because we just knew our pitching staffs historically have not been good enough to keep teams under seven or eight runs. This pitching staff has that capability.