In part two of this week's interview Coach Ward talks about some of his kids coming back for next season, the team's pitching and the outgoing seniors and what they meant to the program.
bc.net: How are things shaping up for next season?
RW: You start thinking now to the positive side of your returning kids and what you're doing with your recruiting class. We're going to be pretty young on the mound next year after being very experienced this year. Even with the amount of time that some of the young kids got. With the amount of pressure innings that Coffman pitched, that Cooper pitched and the successes they had. That'll be of great benefit to them a year from now. You look at what Jordan and Simon did as returning guys, we think we'll probably get both of those guys back. Even though I think Simon could possibly, if somebody liked him enough with the numbers he put up, could get drafted and we could lose him. That's a pretty good core of people that are coming back. We're going to have to add some stuff to it. Cooper could move into a starting role pretty easily and right now we could have the top three guys ready to go. We're going to have to add a couple guys out of the bullpen. We'll have to add another starter with the recruiting class. That'll be something that early in the year will probably be a weakness. Then obviously we have most of our corner people back. Most of our up the middle is gone. We'll have to see what Mike Sodders does with his knee and whether or not he'll be able to return to the middle of the infield or not. You just don't know with that type of injury to the knee. Both him and Aguirre will have knee surgeries in the offseason and we expect both of them to recover fully. We have Chris Auten who is now healthy, feels good. His back's healthy and he's gonna play some summer baseball. He'll be back. So we have some really good quality guys back.
Our big challenge will be to see who's going to catch and play short and play center. Chuck Howard has made a pretty good statement that he's ready to be our number one guy behind the plate.There's a pretty nice core. There have been several years here, one of the biggest difficulties you have is developing some consistency of returning people. There were a couple years here, the first couple years in the WAC, that we had a lot of new guys and we didn't make those transitions very well. The last couple of years there's been some good continuity from team to team. I thought that was the most important thing with this team. Those seniors made it clear how we were going to do things here and what our goals were and the new guys came in and bought in and there was almost as seamless transition. So you're hoping as a coaching staff that we can foster that again into next year. And we've got the right kind of guys. They're baseball players, they're good kids, they're good students, they make the proper decisions and know how to work and get better as baseball players. When you consider that historically our players perform better their second year in our system, if we get better performance out of Reynoso and Sodders and Harty and Shaver, Leo Aguirre is one of my guys that's been here a while. The knee injury, he was on the verge of breaking through and being a 20 home run guy that we thought he could be. The knee kind of took that away from him. With the surgery we think he'll get that back. The brace really restricted his ability to rotate and took most of his power away. He did hit a couple home runs late and was still a pretty good doubles guy. We think he could potentially reach some of those numbers. That's good. We like what we have. Steven Anderson played pretty well late, he hit the game winning home run that might be the key in getting him jump started. At the same time Steven Anderson is a guy we're gonna bring back as a pitcher because there wasn't much room for him this year. We talked to him yesterday about it. He's gonna still compete for a job but I think that he can be a guy, he's 89-91 mph with a slider and good command. He's always been a better hitter and coaches have managed him on that side more. With the offensive people we have back, and we're already piled up in the first baseman position and DH position. It makes sense for us to take a look at it and see if we can add him to the staff and make him the 5th or 6th guy returning on the mound. He may be a guy that can replace that close role or setup role. Those are some possibilities that we'll continue to look at.
bc.net: A couple more of the individual successes that you had this year. For the first time ever you had two guys finish in the .400 club. Leo Aguirre just missed hitting .400 (.398).
RW: Yeah, we had five guys hitting over .400 at the same time at one point.
bc.net: D.J. Simon became only the third pitcher to earn Pitcher of the Week twice in one season. And as a team, something that obviously gets overlooked but was a strong point of the season, in 22 of your 44 wins you held opponents to five runs or fewer.
RW: Wow. We talked about that a lot throughout the season that we had the potential to do that. We had the potential for the first time in my career and probably the first time in the history of Aggie baseball, after the wood bat days, we could go win games 3-2 and 5-4. That's a neat stat. This pitching staff ended up with over a 6.00 ERA again, we really thought they'd end up in the 5.00s which is great playing in desert baseball. But we really played in some big time offensive situations this year. In particular late in year. The last two home series, what happens here is that when humidity levels get so low the infield in extraordinarily hard and extraordinarily fast and there's nothing you can do maintenance wise to stop it. We've tried. We try to flood it with water after the games at night. It does some but not enough. And we played the Hawai'i series with the wind blowing out, the San Jose series with the wind blowing out. They were all perfect offensive situations. Winds blowing out, low humidity, hard field and it hurt some of our numbers pretty bad. If you take the San Jose series out we would have been clearly in the mid 5.00s or even low 5.00s in ERA. It was an ugly weekend. It was because San Jose State played great baseball and the conditions were really favorable. Then we go down to La. Tech and play down there in an extraordinarily small ball park. A tiny ball park with now wind. And the humidity was pretty low. They were almost optimum hitting situations in that ball park. Then Simon shuts them out there. That was crazy. We didn't have any trouble scoring that day. It was 16-0. But we gave up a couple big run games in that series as well.
We had some concerns going into the conference tournament that the psyche of the pitching staff may be damaged a little bit but they really handled it pretty good. I promise you when the pitchers walked in and saw the Kona winds blowing from right to left the first three days which is very unusual there, they're going, "Great... We just pitched three weeks in terrible pitching conditions and we think we're going to get a break going into Hawai'i and the dadgum wind is blowing to left." But they pitched pretty well through that whole deal. I know that after three games we had the lowest ERA of the teams in the tournament and we had been the best pitching team. You don't get to see the final stats of everybody together. We watched a lot of the games and you knew that Bellows was hot. There was no question, he hit two home runs the first day and was hitting .580 or something crazy. That's .580 with going 1 for 5 against us. Of course every ball he hit was hit hard. He hit into some tough hitting luck against us, thank goodness. We did pitch very well there and played good quality defense throughout the tournament.
That's the one big question a year from now. Can we develop the new people. Can we combine our new and old and come back to that level again. Hopefully we can. If we can pitch under a 6.00 ERA and if we ever find a way to pitch under a 5.00 ERA people are going to have a hard time beating us. Because we're going to score and we've always scored. The people we have back are going to score. Am I going to tell you we're going to lead the nation again? It wouldn't surprise me. I think we're clearly, just with the guys I have back, before I see any of the recruits, we're clearly a Top 20 or Top 10 offensive ball club. Just if the dudes that come in and replace this year's starters, if they're just okay. Nobody great. We're still probably a Top 10 offensive club.
bc.net: With the success that the pitching staff had this year, D.J. Simon goes 9-1 with a 4.55 ERA, Jared Jordan goes 7-3 with a 5.71 ERA, Sebastien Vendette goes 8-2 and Tyler Sturdevant picks up seven wins. How much does that help in recruiting pitchers knowing that based on this kind of season, pitchers can pitch well in this park?
RW: I think it's the first time we're really going to make that argument. People are still gonna recruit against us based on that. That's fine. But you can recruit against New Mexico for the same deal. You can recruit against Arizona State for the same deal. Arizona is not quite as good a yard but it's a desert yard. It's a little bigger. But Arizona State plays just like ours. Identical to ours. I don't know what the dimensions are but they're pretty close to the same. It's the same type of environment. [Ed. Note: ASU's stadium, Packard Field is 338 feet down the lines, 368 feet in the power alleys and 395 to straightaway center. Presley Askew Field is 345 down the lines, 385 in the power alleys and 400 to straightaway center.] I think just the overall success has helped us in recruiting. More people are staying with us. We're being considered by some guys that have some big programs working with them. So we're getting into a little bit different level of recruit. But our strength has not been in blue chip recruits, it's been in bringing in baseball players, good kids, good baseball players and developing their talent. That's what we've been good at. That's what we have to continue to be good at. That's our staple, it's to be able to bring in guys that other people didn't want or weren't quite ready to play and develop them into players. Yeah it'd be nice to have some guys ready to play already and I think that pitching wise we're a little closer on that. I know that we're going to be much more left-handed than we were a year ago. I think eight or nine new guys are left-handed pitchers. I think it's kind of an important thing in our ballpark. The ball carries better to right than it does to left. It's something that we're kind of looking forward to considering we only had one last year and we had no left handed starters. I thought that's what benefitted San Jose so much is that they had a couple left-handed starters. They had a nice mix. La. Tech was unique in that all four starters were right-handed and their relievers were left-handed. It makes the opponents' lineups work differently. Some opponents don't make any changes. Most good offensive people make those changes and those changes change the personaility of your team a bit. You try throughout the year to develop right and left-handed lineups so that when you face a left-handed pitcher, and we didn't face very many this year, that it's not a crisis type thing, it's not an uncomfortable thing. I do think that a couple times when we did face a left-hander there wasn't quite the continuity in our lineup that we wanted. But it wasn't just that, it was the fact that we were facing them we had some guys out. We didn't have Richard Stout in the lineup against San Jose as a switch hitter. Sodders was just making the transition at the time, we were platooning Schneider and Lucero and going to put Mikey at first and DH either Decater or Harty depending on right or left. That's kind of when we made those decisions.
bc.net: Talk about each of the seniors and what they've mean to the program over their careers here.
RW: Jeff Farnham. This is a kid that came in and was maybe the most unselfish player I've ever coached. He came in and got very little playing time behind an All-Conference catcher in Joe Leghorn. It was a unique situation in that Joe was the heart and soul of our team and our leadership and every time I didn't play him, he was a guy that really could only catch. We played him a little bit at first but he really was a single position player so Jeff didn't get much playing time. The only time he got to play was when I really felt like I had to rest Joe. And when I did it I felt like I was sitting my emotional leader on the bench. Maybe it wasn't as real as what I felt but you coach the way you feel. And he [Jeff] was very patient. He went out in the California summer league and lit it up [Ed. Note: Jeff Farnham was named the MVP of the Horizon Air Summer Series baseball league in 2008]. He came to us as a guy, what we needed behind Joe Leghorn was what you call a catch and throw guy. Guy's just a real good catcher, throws real well, plus thrower, doesn't matter what he does with a bat. And that's what he was. But he came into our offensive system and became a very good to great offensive player. Two years ago he had never done anything like that. I'm proud of him. He's turned himself into a legitimate pro prospect. He'll get a chance to go play some professional baseball and that's what he wants to do.
Richard Stout is a three year guy. He transferred to me, he's out of Boise, ID. He's proud of that area. He went to Arizona and then transferred to me before the transfer rules changed. He came in as a 2B and we had some failure at shortstop so we moved him and played him out of position we felt, at short. His arm wasn't quite good enough to be a shortstop but he played really well in his first year. We tried to keep him at second baseman his second year and then before the season started made him shortstop all year and then going into this year we thought that by moving him to center field we would help the ball club but also help his draftability. He's a small player that as a switch hitting center fielder may get a little more benefit. The move was made much easier by the fact that Marquez made the move from second to short almost immediately and performed from the first day in the fall there. It was a double move. Let's move Stouty there to see and we'll move BMar to short and feel good about it. Well it happened quick. It took a little longer for Rich to get settled in as the center fielder but he really did a nice job throughout the year. He turned himself into a pretty darn good outfielder. The judgement on outfielders is hard to make because you can't really see it in the stat column. If he throws great he may have a couple more assists in the stat column. Ten or 11 assists for an outfielder is a lot. It's a small range. Same with errors, it's a small range. Most errors that outfielders make are maybe not in a lot of cases their fault. Maybe it's a mishandle of a relay throw or they overthrow it a little bit or the backup guy didn't get into position. But what he did do was he made every play he was supposed to make. The consistency of going and making plays. When you judge your outfielders when the ball is hit off the bat you know what should be caught and what shouldn't be caught. He always caught what should be caught and as the year went on he made a couple that probably shouldn't have been caught. He continued to progress through the year. But as the leadoff guy in this program he'll be the most missed player because we haven't had to worry about the leadoff spot. At the beginning of the year for the last three years that's the first name I've written down and I've haven't had to think about it, with the exception of the two weeks he went down. Then I'm going, "who the heck am I gonna lead off?" I'm gonna lead off with my catcher. Who does that? Well Farnham did a nice job in that role, in fact he liked hit. He really wished he could have stayed there. So Richard Stout was a special guy in the program that helped to bring us to where we are. I think he's got a few hours in summer school to finish his degree. He'll do good in life. He's got a good personality and he'll do fine.
Tyler Sturdevant is a five year guy. He actually has another year of eligibility because he missed two years with injury. But we've talked to him about the fact that he needs to go out and pitch. He came off of injury a year ago and had some inconsistency with velocity not performance really. This year he maintained his velocity which is what the scouts wanted to see but he had some shaky performances. But his last two outings were fabulous. I know that we had several cross checkers. In the pro system you have area scouts. And the standard base here is the four corners. And you have area scouts that scout that area. You may have two Southern California scouts because there's so many people to cover. Then you have what you call cross checkers which are four or five guys, high up scouts in an organization. Their job is to take all the reports that come from area scouts and finalize draft rounds on these guys. They take the reports and they go see them. We had a few cross checkers at the tournament and that was great because Tyler threw great. Fresno had him on the gun at 94/95 mph. I think he upgraded his draft status. We think he'll go on what used to be the first day.
You can watch the [draft] ticker and watch picks. It's kind of a fun day for us coaches because obviously we're looking for our players with excitements and we're looking for our recruits with apprehension. We're also looking for guys we played against, you're rooting for kids like Tommy Mendonca who's a neat kid and a really good player in the league. We think that he's got a pretty good chance of going in the top 16 rounds. If he doesn't he'll get a chance to go out and pitch somewhere and he'll do a fine job. He's a good kid and he got his degree and he got some hours towards his masters in the time he was here.
Bryan Marquez. What can you say. The kid was a .290/.300 hitter as a 2B a year ago. His claim to fame was he was the only guy in the infield last year that you could trust, that had a low error total. He was kind of a savior for us. The randomness of baseball, if it's hit to the left side you hold you breath, if it's hit to the right side you're already headed to the coaching box. But to make the transition from where he was, down the lineup guy, good defender just a good baseball player but just that, to a First Team All-Conference shortstop and a finalist for the Brooks Wallace Award, a semifinalist in the Top 30 for the Golden Spikes Award, a semifinalist for the Dick Howser Award, those are all huge national recognition things. I'm so proud of the kid. Just beyond what he did numbers wise, he's a quiet kid, doesn't say much but he became really a leader by example and a leader by voice throughout the course of the season and was really a key component of the club. He's one of those guys that you think as a coach, how am I going to replace him? Well, Wade Reynoso is the same type of guy. We've got a couple guys on this club that have that same type of personality. Nate Shaver is the type of guy that has that same quiet personality. You feel good that there's some guys that might do that. The difference in numbers from last year to this year were probably the best I've ever had out of a player. It was pretty cool. You've had some improvements where a guy had a horrible year and then he had a good year. This year had a good year then had a great year and it made a big difference for this ball club.
Erik Nyquist as a closer guy had a tough end of the year but he closed some games early in the year that were important. He got his degree and he'll move on in life. He wants to coach.
Noah Garza, another guy that really had more impact on last year's team than this year just because of the performance of some of the new guys. But he made his mark while he was here and I hope that he had a good college career.
Sebastien Vendette is a unique kid, Canadian kid, that came in to me through my brother who's at Northeastern Oklahoma Junior College. He came into us hurt and didn't play his first year. Then his second year, he's a unique kid in how he prepares for stuff. Not really eccentric but kind of. He really was the guy at the end of last year that we could rely on. There were some people that made judgement, we went into the tournament a year ago and go two and out and Vendette doesn't get to the mound. Well I'll still make the argument that I don't go to the tournament to lose it, I go to win it. What really happened in that tournament is that we just got beat in the first game and Heath Goin got hurt and tried to pitch through an injury that he's since had surgery for. Sturdevant pitched against Sacramento and we just got beat. We just didn't ever get traction in the tournament. We talked about it this year before the tournament. I just wanted to get traction. I thought the first game was important to us. It's like anything else in life. The hardest thing to do in life is doing something for the very first time. Whether it's just a simple thing or something that's very complex. It's still the hardest thing you do in life. Experience is a wonderful thing. Now at 45 years old I'm really starting to understand what people really mean by wisdom. I never really understood as a young person what people meant by wisdom, I knew what it was but I didn't have context. Now I get it. It's a combination of experience that allows you to view life in a different way. So it was really good that we got that first win, we got traction. Well this year we did the same thing and Sebastien got to the mound in the third game and it mattered. He pitched us to the championship game. When he came to me he was really an unsure kid. He matured maybe more than anybody that I had as a player. He wasn't an incompetent kid or anything, he just was kind of unsure of himself in life and I think he's leaving me as somebody that's really gained a lot from his experience at New Mexico State in all aspects from the social to the academic to the athletic.
Justin Lucero is so much of a unique kid. He's terribly undersized. He's one of those kids that fooled us for a while because he thought he was a great runner and he's not. He's very quick. In the outfield a year ago when Scaperotta went down with a quad pull, he didn't have the range I thought would as a center fielder. He's got quick spurt speed but he can't carry it out. He really flattens out and becomes a bad runner with his 11th or 12th step. And he had a bad year with the bat. We went through the entire fall and we didn't know if he was going to be on the ball club but he just kept competing. He just kept telling me, not verball but with what he did, that I'm worth working with, I'm going to give you 100% all the time. Then voila, the guy was really an important factor to this team early in the year as a defensive replacement. Then he became even more important when Aguirre went down with the knee injury and then he became even more important when Sodders went down. Then all of the sudden you say, let's move him to second because he's got skills there. We'd played with him a little bit in the fall there just to kind of see. But it was rough. He didn't know coverages, he didn't have experience there. But when Sodders went down with the knee we felt like that that's what we needed to do. We had [Wes] Schneider there but they're both small bodied players that need to be fresh and needed to be platooned, at least that was the way we looked at it, so they both played there and then Scneider went down for a few days with a shoulder injury and that's when he really expanded. This kid made plays that Mike Sodders couldn't make. He made plays that I haven't had a second baseman make in my career with his speed and range. e picked up the position, he'd never played it in his entire life and he played good. He made some errors but rarely did they really hurt us. He made tough plays under pressure. I'm extraordinarily proud of what he did. He was really a key factor and he was really important to us in the tournament in Hawai'i because it's field turn and it gives you a little more range. He went out and got to balls that nobody in the WAC got to. He was errored on a ball in the San Jose State game that Fresno State's 2B Danny Muno would not have got to. I thought it was a bad error because he really got extended. He really gave us a lot out of a real small package. I think he's one of those guys that gained a whole bunch from this sports. He's a neat kid. As many times as he could have been upset with the amount of playing time, he never complained. As it turned out it worked out well because he ended up playing and he ended up playing a real serious key role in the club and it gave me a chance to use some of the boppers on my bench that I couldn't move. There were times where he played three innings and I'd pinch hit for him in a key spot but he played so well for a period of time that I didn't do that very much. I did it a little bit more in the tournament because he didn't have a very good tournament. He did triple but Fresno had gotten cocky and pulled their outfielders into a real shallow position and it gave both me and him a little bit of a laugh that he beat them over the top. It was an important run to start some things off.
Jake Wilson is really a unique story. He had a really bad year a year ago. Jake Wilson was a true comeback player. Chase Tidwell my pitching coach was a genius in making the move with him. We took him out of a starting role and put him into an angle and changed his entire setup, made him into an entirely different pitcher and it worked. He went from a guy that was 88 to 89 mph with command problems as a starter, he walked to many people. He had a tendency when he got behind people to throw fastballs to the white of the plate that'd just get drilled to a guy that became a true closer. He started as a setup guy where he was able to get us the 7th and 8th and get us to Nyquist or Coffman or whoever we were going with at the time and really extended our pitching staff a whole bunch. He went from a guy that was close to having no college career left to a guy that's gonna be drafted. He had some soreness in his shoulder for a couple weeks that kind of took him off track a little bit and it was kind of an unfortunate time for him because his name had gotten out there among pro scouts saying this guy is really lighting it up. And a couple guys came in to see him and they weren't able to see him. That may hurt him a bit. But he pitched very well at La. Tech and he did pitch very well in the conference tournament and as I said there were some cross checkers there. He consistently threw the ball 93 to 95 mph from an angle. He was tough. The one thing that he did that was his nemesis his entire career was that he was able to throw strikes pretty consistently. He was still wild enough so that hitters couldn't just sit in the box. He would still buzz the chin every once in a while and he still hit a guy every once in a while. He did get at a point where he got so comfortable throwing strikes that he threw too many. You need to have a little wildness so that hitters don't just settle into the box. You want them to make sure that angle that they're throwing from keeps the intimidation that they want. The sightline changes. When the ball comes out of his hands it looks like it's gonna hit you in the ribs and it ends up over the plate. That's why guys go to angles. He did it and he did it with velocity and completely changed himself. And from a personality standpoint he grew to a point of confidence that he never displayed before that transcends and will transcend into the rest of his life. There are things we deal with in athletics but that's part of the most important things we do as coaches. We give kids the opportunity to succeed and fail in public view. If you can learn how to fail in public view and come back and do it again, you can do anything in your life. That's the beauty of athletics. It's tough some times. There are times where it's not good and you want to go hide but it doesn't let you. There are lots of places in life where you can go hid and people will let you and nobody'll know the difference. In sports there aren't any. It just teaches you some real big life lessons. Of all my players I think he's learned more about who he really is and what he really wants to be than any player I've had in quite a while. Just forget the athletic part of it. The personal side of it I think he gained a tremendous amount through his experience. His dad was in Hawai'i, parents sometimes have a hard time, they don't know when to approach you because we are kind of intense. I am. After we'd lost the couple of games it was important for his father to come say "Thank You" and I know how difficult that is because he was hurting, as we all were from not getting it done. But that means a lot. When you take kids in you're a surrogate parent. You have a responsibility for them. You promise the parents that you're going to take care of them and you promise that when they leave they're going to have degrees and you promise them that they're going to be adults ready to take on the world. Sometimes you're not able to keep those promises. When you feel like you've done that, that's a good thing. I think that we were able to do that for Jake Wilson.