Weekly Coach Ward Interview :: 05/10/10 Your thoughts on the series against Fresno State?
Rocky Ward: Unfortunately the series went by the way of tradition. Every time in the last five years that Fresno has needed to pick it up and play, they've done it. They did it last year when they kind of put themselves in a real bad spot by putting themselves in last place going into Sacramento and they went in to Sacramento and went from last to third in one weekend. It was very much a playoff atmosphere, good crowds. Both teams played very nervous the first couple innings of the first game and then they hit us in the mouth with a five-spot, we made a defensive mistake that kind of opened the door and then they just kind of settled in and started playing baseball and we couldn't get the momentum stopped. They put up another six-spot and all of the sudden that game is sort of out of hand even though my offense kept making moves at them. It was kind of one of those games that the team that got the advantage and got relaxed in the series first was going to do well and they did. They were able to carry that momentum into games two and three. We really played… game one we played tight and when they got going we couldn't stop them. Game two and three we really played bad. We played poorly. My middle infield had their worst series of the year, they both looked like they were worn out and tired. We just couldn't quite get our feet underneath us. We came back Sunday and played really quality baseball. We didn't make mistakes, played very well. The difference in the game is they made about five big-time defensive plays. The center fielder made three dives in the outfield and made all three in key situations. The shortstop made two or three plus plays. They played the whole weekend on a very hard field. One of the problems we have here late in the year is it gets so dry and especially when we go on the road trip and come back off the road, our field gets really hard and gets really fast. It plays lightening fast. They made one error on the weekend. For a team that was an okay defensive team just like us. Their defensive numbers are almost identical to ours. They just played lights out.

It's disappointing, it's an opportunity lost. You feel like at one point that all the work you've done to this point has been wasted, that's kind of what you feel after you go through one of these things. But they're very good. There's no question right now after seeing most of the league, I haven't seen Hawai'i, but I feel very strongly that we're the two best teams in the league. We're still in first by a half game. The problem is we've got four left and they've got eight left. They've got eight at home and we've got four on the road. The unique thing is about it is Fresno has not been a good home team. Their home record is 13-14. Their road record coming in here was 11-6 and now they're up to 15-6. They're in the top 10 in the country as far as road records as we are.

We'll see what happens this upcoming weekend. It makes the Hawai'i games more important to us. If we play well in Hawai'i then we can put some pressure on them. That's all we can hope for right now is to go into Hawai'i and play good baseball, find a way to win that series. What we lost is a little bit of control of our destiny so to speak. That hurts but there's not much you can do about it. I think the only good thing I can say is we really played a quality game on Sunday and reminded Fresno that we can play pretty good baseball and we hadn't for a couple days. I think that's important when it comes down to the conference tournament. That's when it makes a big difference.

We're moving forward, getting ready to go to Hawai'i. You've got to go back and remember how good you were. I talked to the ballclub, I said, "Listen guys, we just lost four in a row, they were big games there's no question about it but what you did is you put yourself in a great position. We lost a little bit of that position but it's not all the way lost." We've kind of lost the ability to have our destiny in our own hands against Fresno. If we won four against Hawai'i, they still have to lose two of the last eight. Nevada lost Sunday night in 12 innings to San Jose State, they were about to sweep San Jose. So our magic number against Nevada is three. Winning three out of four would eliminate Nevada as a contender for the one or two seed. There's still a lot of positive things about it.

We were 13-2 coming in, we had a lot to be proud of and it's almost like those four games eliminated all the good stuff from the 13-2. But as in all sports and all competitive environments you're only as good as your next game and if you win your next game it changes your whole perspective and attitude. We need to go to Hawai'i and play really good solid baseball. I am kind of a numbers guy but usually I don't spend a lot of time with teams explaining the scenarios. But I thought it was important for them to understand that the seeding in this tournament is really important, the first and second seed. We may have lost some control over whether or not we can be the number one seed but we can control whether or not we can be the number two and it's worth continuing to play hard. These guys were going to do that anyway. We'll go to Hawai'i and play every game as much as we can pitch-by-pitch and see what we can do.

The regular season is clearly about seeding but it's also about setting precedent with teams. When you win a series against a team you have a psychological advantage against them when you play them in the tournament. The other thing you're looking for and the one thing we think we did get from this Fresno series is win or lose you're looking for the right pitcher to match up with the right teams. That was a lot of our success in the tournament last year. We felt like every guy we put to the mound was a guy that had had a great outing in the regular season against that team. We did establish the fact that they're very left-handed. Ryan Beck pitched very well outside the first inning. They hit one ball really hard, the rest of them were choppers and ground balls through. It was just an ugly baseball inning. He gave up five in the first but he really didn't pitch poorly and he went on to pitch five strong innings. So now I've got a guy. If I'm going to face Fresno, they're going to see Ryan Beck. We did get something from it. I think one of the things that a series like this can do is it can remind each player that you've got to work hard each day and you can't just walk out there and win like we've been doing for so long. It's not that my team hadn't been giving the effort, it's the small quiet thing about winning streaks. When we went to Sacramento we didn't play well but we won. Great teams have got to be able to do that. They've got to be able to play their 'B' games and still win but eventually it'll catch up with you and I think that anybody that had lost focus, they got it back. You've mentioned the respect that Fresno has for your offense and that was evident in the first game when they went to Bonesteele, one of their better relievers, in the fourth inning in a 13-run game. Really the entire weekend your offense, they didn't have a pitcher go more than five innings. I'm sure one thing that you can take away from this weekend is that your offense was able to get to their starting pitching, you just weren't able to string together enough stops on defense.
RW: Two years ago Fresno was based on two concepts, really a great pitching staff, hard-nosed, bulldog pitching staff with two or three really good middle of the lineup guys and a very good defense. They're really different. They are really a great offense, they're very left-handed which makes it difficult for us. We only have two left-handed pitchers on the roster. We don't match up pitching-wise very well with them. But no, they didn't bring anybody to the mound that we didn't feel like we could handle. Gonzalez was real unique because he has a good arm but he's very straight. He's a smaller bodied guy but he gets his release point up high so it has a lot of down angle in it but it doesn't have much movement. He's really got a dominant changeup. Coming out of the hand it looks like it's 90 and all of the sudden it's 72. Guys can't make that type of an adjustment. The breaking ball early on in the game was bad and then he threw a couple later that had some depth and bite. So I can see how he threw the no-hitter a couple weeks ago. Of all the guys we didn't do a very good job against it was probably him. A lot of that was the fact that we'd lost two in a row and you have 45 minutes to regroup and Dan Reid didn't have a good outing. We were down 8-2 in the third in a seven inning game and I think as a team, it was the first time we had backed off for bit and got frustrated. It was hard to get moving. That game was kind of the example. That was the only game that we really didn't make a push to get back in it. We never really got anything going.

They did pitch us as good as they thought they could. The only real disappointment that I have is the guy they had on the mound that beat us on Sunday wasn't one of their key guys. I thought that some of the moves that they made with Bonesteele and some of those other guys in the those first three games put us in a position where that was their eighth or ninth or tenth guy. They really played great defense behind that kid and that's why he had success. We didn't have any problem hitting him hard.

It was the first opportunity with us being in a position of strength. All of our other games that we've played against them, we've been the clear underdog. We've been behind them in the standings, we've been the up and coming team but hadn't done it yet type of team. That's how it was in the conference tournament. It was the first time as a team that we had ever had a real responsibility against one of the best teams in the league to hold serve and it's a little harder than what people think if you've never done it before. And we hadn't. We'd never been in that position before. You fail this time but most people in life for things that are really really important don't succeed in the first try. All I've talked to my ballclub is that we've put ourselves into the position that we've needed to get into. The last three or four years in the WAC we've gone into the last weekend series still not having been qualified for the tournament. The first two years we didn't qualify. The next two two years we did qualify but we had to win some games in the last series to qualify. Right now we are qualified already. It's the earliest in school history that we've ever qualified for the conference tournament with the exception of maybe 2003 when we finished second, we may have qualified earlier. But since we've been in the WAC this is the first time we've qualified with a couple weekends left in the league to play. You break down other people's traditions within leagues just a bite at a time and you develop your own traditions just a bite at a time. It gets frustrating for fans. The final goal is not lost. The final goal is to play our butts off. We've still got a chance to win the conference regular season. If we don't, realistically we're going to be in the best position we've been in in the conference tournament with seeding. We're pretty much guaranteed right now a minimum of a 3-seed, very likely to be the 2-seed and we could still win the league but we're going to need a little help from Sacramento and San Jose in their series with Fresno. Zac Fisher had a really good series against Fresno State, he went 4-for-10 and three of those hits were home runs.
RW: Yeah he did. He had a great weekend. The last three weeks he's played really well and we needed him to. With Ben Harty being out we needed him to play good baseball and he's done that. He's done really a nice job. This is a kid that starting to set up as a hitter and starting to act like he did in the fall when he was annihilating our pitching staff. He hit like 28 home runs in our scrimmages in the fall and spring and when he came into the season he hit a home run fairly early in the season but then he didn't hit another for a while. He really struggled as a hitter and so I think he's kind of relaxed back. He's playing more up to his potential than he did in the middle part of the year and that's good.

The final breakthrough, he had a good weekend but the one thing that kids rarely have when they come here is in a pinch hitting role. In junior college and in high school they're starting every day. These are the cream of the crop players. They never come off the bench because they're never on the bench. They're playing every inning every day. I work pretty hard in developing guys, Kyle Decater and Jared Jordan were two of the best pinch hitters last year. Both of those guys were on the field on Sunday so the only guys I had were Ben Harty who played in his first game in six or seven weeks and Zac. Zac pinch hit in a key situation and went out there clear eyed and put a great swing on a pretty good pitch. It was kind of a sinker down and away, a tough pitch for left-handers and he went out and put a good barrel on it and the center fielder just went out and made a big league play. With Zac he's doing great and that's great for the ballclub. Your thoughts on this upcoming series with Hawai'i? Has your recent success in Hawai'i sort of demystified the Hawai'i ballpark for your team?
RW: What has happened is my pitchers love to pitch there and so my pitching staff gets better when we go. We don't have great team speed and the field turf they play on is one of the slowest, if not the slowest surface you play on and it helps our defense because we cover more ground. I would say at least half, maybe more of the ground ball basehits that were hit this past weekend would have been outs had you played in Hawai'i. That's the biggest deal. It's not as much about the home run. We fit that park pretty good because when they have the normal prevailing winds they blow from left to right. if you hit a ball from right-center to the line the ball carries pretty good, it actually gets a little push. So we have some left-handed fly ball hitters that can take advantage of that. It's a very very difficult yard for the right-handed hitters because you have to hit it into the wind.

I'm looking forward to it. I have very surehanded infielders. We just don't have real good range and that showed up. That was maybe the biggest difference. Everybody is going to blame pitching because we gave up so many runs but the reason we did is they were quicker and faster than us. They really made more plays than we did and that was really the difference. Every time we were hitting a ball hard they were getting to half of them and when they hit a ball hard we were getting any of them. My team has been a very good road team. My pitching staff is pumped about going there. We'll benefit defensively from going there. We've always played pretty good in Hawai'i. The first year we got beat three out of four there but we were not very good. My team was just not very good the first year in the league. We weren't very good because that was the year we had 18 guys injured.

It's a fair ballpark. You don't get any cheap home runs but if you hit them right they normally leave. The only guy that gets hurt is the right-handed hitter that pulls the ball. There are going to be some balls that are going to be caught that would normally be home runs just because of the wind. Most of the time the wind isn't very strong, 5-10 mph maybe 15 mph but the humidity levels are very high and the higher the humidity the more the wind actually impacts the ball. It probably cuts a normal fly ball by 20 or 30 feet some times so you've really got to step on it to get it out to left. We've got one guy, Perkins, he's the only real right-handed pull power guy we have but he's a smart hitter, he's really developed and he's got some juice the other way, opposite field. He may not be a big home run guy this weekend but he can go out and double to right-center and still be our best RBI guy. Of course if Ben's back and healthy, Ben can hit it out of anywhere at any time. Auten when he was healthy had a great series there a couple years ago where he hit a couple home runs. Leo fits the park very well. We're just looking forward to it. Overall it's going to be a good weekend. We don't know what we're going to be walking into there because before this weekend they kind of looked dead in the water but after Fresno sweeps us and we back up to the rest of the league, Nevada wins three out of four against San Jose that puts them down in last place. Hawai'i because of San Jose and Sacramento's bad weekends, it puts Hawai'i in a pretty good position. It gives them something to play for again. That's what this league has always done. It's always been tight, it's alway been hard for somebody to get to the frontside. That's what was so impressive about what San Jose did last year. They were able to get out front and stay out front. Everybody else is always in the middle of a dogfight. I think that they're going to feel like if they sweep us at home, they're going feel like they've got a chance to be a three or four seed where they were looking at maybe being lucky to make the tournament.

I know they're also a ballclub that expected to have a lot better numbers than they do. They played a very tough schedule, they played really well early in the year. They've got two or three quality pitchers and two or three quality position players. All the coaches that I talk to, it seems like everybody I've played has already played Hawai'i, they're dumbfounded by the fact that they're 6-10. They're better, they're a good team. I talked to Mike Batesole about it and he said, "We beat them three out of four but we got lucky. Get a line drive at somebody for a double play, we made a good play here and there." He just thought they were better than their record shows.