bleedCrimson.net: Your thoughts on a really weird weekend of baseball with Hawai'i?
Rocky Ward: We've played some crazy stupid baseball for a long time and that was nuts. It was one of those, you'd have to call it a manic depressive weekend. Two big wins and two big losses. It was crazy. The good thing about it was that we went out and won the first game. I didn't expect a split in the doubleheader and yet we still got it. We got alter ego games, win 15-4 and lose 14-4. The [Matt] Sisto kid for them, he did not pitch well, he's their number one guy. We got rolling and they couldn't stop us and then they had to do what you've always gotta do and that's go downline pitching. Once you've got the lead you can't put the rest of the series in jeopardy. Then in game two, Dan Reid didn't pitch well. Neither one of our number ones pitched up to what their numbers were, they both had pretty average stuff and both offense got after it. Hawaii's offense is pretty good, they've got some people that can hit. Obviously their numbers are always held down by the type of offensive ballpark that they play in and for all intents and purposes because of the style that they play. They got after it and handled us pretty good and ended up in the same type of deal where we had to go downline pitching. In that game [Tim] Torsney gave us the best pitching numbers on the weekend in those 4.2 that he ended up pitching. He only gave up one earned run I believe. The game was so far out of reach that we just couldn't do much with it.
Saturday and Sunday were just crazy. Saturday we have a 13-run inning which was very much like the 15-run inning we put up against San Jose. We were trailing and then all of the sudden the wheels fall off. Then voila they turn around and do the same thing to us the next day. It was a little different because they had a pretty significant lead at the time when they got their 15 runs.
The end result of it was that we survived our conference schedule. Obviously our conference numbers were very good but when you get swept on the road twice they can't be real good. When you look at it, 9-15, had we just won game in each of those series we'd have gone to 11-13 and been right in the mix and that's kind of the way this league is, always has been. I don't think anybody expected that Louisiana Tech would play to the 3-seed. I knew it was possible but it was in the back of my mind, pretty far back there because I really expected San Jose would win three out of four at home, they didn't, certainly didn't expect them to get beat at home three out of four. It's just the crazy WAC, the wacky WAC.
It just keeps the tradition going. I'm sure there were some people that expected Hawai'i to sweep us or win three out of four the way we had been playing. I'm just happy that we've qualified for the tournament. I've said all along that that there's not much difference between the three and six seed. There wasn't a whole lot of difference in the Sun Belt between those teams. I think that of the four teams in the three through six spot, we clearly have the best offensive ballclub but we have the worst defense and the worst pitching while the other guys are kind of balanced in those areas one way or another.
LA Tech is the opening draw, we're going to face Jeb Steffan and we're going to go with Beck and we'll see how the tournament falls. If we win the first round game then we'll catch Hawai'i. There's an advantage to that as well because we'd play the two 7:00 p.m. games in that scenario and it's going to get pretty hot in Phoenix. It's not too hot right now but it's supposed to get up to 100 by Thursday or Friday so the evening game is going to be an advantage, to not have to play in the heat of the day.
But again, you've got to win the first game. If you lose the first game then you've got to play the dreaded 11 a.m. game coming off the night game, that's one of the hardest games you have to play. The only thing about it is that somebody has to win it. But playing the night game is a pretty big advantage compared to the other teams that play the 3:00 game and had the afternoon and evening to rest before they had to be up to play the 11 a.m. game.
We've got to go to Mesa to play and we've got to be ready to play well early in the tournament. One advantage of having qualified for the tournament by winning the first two out of three against Hawai'i was that I didn't have to play Parker Hipp. He was probably not playable anyway because of his foot. I went ahead and didn't have to play Zac Voight and it gave him another day of rest. It helped us heal up a little bit.
It'll be the first time that Parker will basically have had four days of rest off his foot. Hopefully that'll be enough to get him closer to 90 percent of full health because he's basically been playing the last two or three weeks at 50 percent of capability. In the early part of series he's played pretty well but as the series have gone one he's struggled. Each day he'd been a little bit sorer.
bc.net: You wind up drawing Louisiana Tech, the three seed, on Wednesday.
RW: I'm satisfied with the draw. I still believe, as most of us [coaches] do that Fresno is the scary team. They've got a bunch of great athletes and most of us would like to miss them until later in the tournament. Nobody wants to face Gonzalez. I'm sure he'll be the pitcher of the year so obviously nobody wants to face him and you could face him in round one or round two depending on how Fresno sets their pitching up. Historically they've been pretty straight-line with it, they'll send their best pitcher the first day, they usually haven't messed too much with their pitching rotation.
You go back several years to our last year in the Sun Belt. We went into Middle Tennessee on the road and lost three really close games and then get into the tournament and had to face Middle Tennessee again and the guy that beat us was named the Pitcher of the Year and so we lose to him, then we catch Louisiana-Lafayette the next day and that was the other Pitcher of the Year. So we faced the first and second team pitchers of the year and we went out of the tournament two and out. We didn't play that bad, we just faced the two best pitchers and we just weren't good enough.
That's kind of what you're looking at. LA Tech, we're going to miss Jefferson, the left-hander who has been one of the hottest pitchers in the league. Steffan is good too.
I think we're pretty equitable teams, I'm pretty comfortable that we can compete head to head with them. That game against Steffan was a little weird. He got himself in trouble but we just had one of our snakebite days which we had several times on the road where we couldn't get anything going and if we did somebody would hit into a double play or we couldn't get a breakthrough base hit, that sort of stuff.
Outside of the top two guys, I don't think it matters who you play. I think we're all pretty equal talent-wise. I would think that we have an advantage overall offensively but a disadvantage against everybody else pitching-wise.
All I know is eventually you're going to have to face Fresno but I'd rather not have to face them with their best guys on the mound.
If we can win on Wednesday against Louisiana Tech then you have a chance to go up against Hawai'i. I don't know who they'll go to the mound with but Sisto is their number one and he had a bad outing against us so I don't know what they'll do with that game.
Any way you look at it, I'm just happy to be there and the way the bracket is set up you feel like you've got a shot.
The tournament will be fun. You can kind of erase some of the difficulties we had in league. There are a lot of reasons for that, poor play in some cases, in some cases we had to play the majority of the league with Parker Hipp either out or playing injured. Same thing with Zach Voight who was really a major factor early in the season in the middle of our lineup and with the shoulder injury we eventually had to move him down the lineup because the shoulder injury was hurting his offense. And some of the rest that he got because of his leg has helped his arm and kind of give it some rest. If Parker feels better we may be back close to full strength.
It seems like every year I'm talking about injuries. It's kind of the way it is. It's a random thing too and we've had other guys that have been out with injuries but they haven't been as important to us as Parker. It's happened to me two years in a row, last year Sodders and Harty were both top five in the country in homers and RBI, this year Parker is leading the nation in RBIs when his knee gets infected out of nowhere and he has to have surgery to clean out the infection. I'm just losing the wrong guys. At least in this particular case he was able to play through a lot of it.
bc.net: How much, if any advantage will you gain heading into the tournament on Wednesday having played a doubleheader Thursday then singles on Friday and Saturday whereas the other three teams that play on Wednesday played a single Friday, doubleheader Saturday and a single on Sunday?
RW: I think there's some advantage. That's part of why we set it up that way. We originally intended to play the series Wednesday/Thursday/Friday/Saturday but the conference wouldn't let us do it because we couldn't get umpiring. Hawai'i was going to be on the mainland anyway, so if you're going to be on the mainland sitting in a hotel, you may as well be playing and that was part of the reason we did it. I don't know why the other two series played Friday/Saturday/Sunday. A lot of teams have moved that back a day in order to give their teams an extra day's rest, both pitching and position players. Considering our injury situation, I was able to get Parker and Voight out of the game three fairly early. They didn't have to play the whole game and then I was able to rest those two guys on Saturday. It helps.
I think overall we needed it. A lot of people think of it as needing it for pitching but we needed it to heal up some of our position players.
bc.net: This is the second year the tournament is being held in Mesa and last year one of the things we talked a little bit about was some of the distractions that go along with the tournament being played close to home. What adjustments do you make this year?
RW: You can't tell friends and family to stay away, you're not going to do that. But it's something and the way we structure things and the way we schedule things, it's got to be a point of discussion that we make sure guys understand. I've always operated under a unity contract and if you ask any player that's played for me in the last 10 years, if you ask any of them about "the bubble" they'll be able to explain it but what I really believe is that me, my staff and my players live in a vacuum, we live in a bubble and we're the only ones that really truly understand what we've given up, what we've fought through to gain our successes or how difficult our failures our. We love moms and dads and we love our fans and we love our friends but they're not part of that and they don't really truly understand. When you go 0-for-4 and strike out three times in a conference tournament game, there's not anything anyone can do to make that better and realistically, quality athletes don't want anybody to do anything to make it better. They want to feel the pain and they want to work through it so that the next time they'll be more committed. That's what good athletes do. I felt like last year, certain players broke that pact and let some girlfriends and parents get in the middle of our preparation.
Again, we love them, that doesn't mean we can't go to dinner with them, it doesn't mean we can't spend some time with them it just means their opinion stays their opinion. You get under tournament situations, I've seen it happen hundreds of times, you get a parent or a girlfriend that has an opinion on how the ballclub is being run and who should be playing and who shouldn't be playing and the players get involved with that stuff. They have to deal with it themselves. If they're a guy that's starting every day then great, but if they're not then they have to establish their role for that game and I think that sometimes when parents get involved and they're upset then it upsets the player. A player has to be strong enough. Up to this point throughout the course of the regular season we've work very hard with these guys to get them to truly understand what their role is in any given day. If it's a starter, fine. If it's a pinch hitter or defensive replacement then that's fine.
I don't know that there's much we can do other than speak to the kids and remind them of their commitment to each other. At this stage, for this weekend it's stronger than any commitment than to mom or dad or girlfriend. It's why I call it a bubble. When the season is over the bubble is busted and we go out and enjoy our time with our family but when the season is going on, we sequester ourselves in this mindset and the only people we really truly trust are our teammates and coaches. I just means that you need to keep your eyes on the prize and your mind on what's expected of you from your teammates. We'll probably spend some more time discussing and reminding the team of those commitments.
bc.net: Last season of of the big factors was how fast the infield played. Is that something that the coaches have talked about with the grounds crew or the facility administrators?
RW: No, there may have been some discussions and the ground crews may have listened to us and made some adjustments or they may not have. We may not know until we get to the site just to get an idea of how it's going to play. Desert infields are still desert infields, they're very difficult to slow down much so it'll be a quick field. It's going to be a matter of if it's hard or not. The one thing we'll check immediately is how hard the dirt is around home plate and whether or not balls that are hit into the hardpan that are usually on a normal infield become two-hoppers to the infielder, on hard surfaces they bounce out of the infield. They hit an bounce over infielders' heads or bounce high enough so that the runner can get to first before the ball can be played on.
Both teams have to play under the same conditions. Everything falls back to that. Some years it may be an advantage to you, some years it may not. That's the way a lot of things are.
That ballpark was a disadvantage to us a little bit last year. We'd gotten Ben Harty back and his power was to straight away and you can't hit a ball out of that ballpark straight away, there's a huge wall out in center. This year, Fisher and Hipp and the guys that put up power have done it pretty much on the pull side.
I think our ballclub fits that park a little better this year than last year. That and I think we run significantly better. We have the same center fielder in Starkes. As good as Nate Shaver was, Bryan Karraker is a step or two better and Tanner Waite has turned himself into a plus outfielder and is probably a step or two better than Perkins and Perk is still with us and can be a defensive replacement and we don't lose much ground.
The ability of our outfielders to cover the fly ball in the gaps is much better than it has been in several years.
bc.net: One of the areas that was an area of concern for a good chunk of the season was your pinch hitting and you've got a bunch of guys over the last two or three weeks that have established themselves as good pinch hitters.
RW: Tanner Rust has really moved into a spot where he's been really successful there. I started him as a DH in game one against Hawai'i and he went 3-for-4 and had some really key base hits. Ryan Clark has had some pinch hits, we've got Ryan Laing back involved with the ballclub. He's been a good selective hitter. We've had some pretty good success.
Some of that was negated by the fact that we tried to give a few of those guys some starts to get a few extra at-bats and they didn't have real good success as starters in the Saturday game but overall we've got some guys that you feel good about when you go to the plate. Really if Hipp is back and playable at a good clip, there aren't very many pinch hit opportunities in my lineup. I'm not going to pinch hit for Aguayo , Fisher, Starkes or Waite. Maybe Karraker but I haven't done that since early in the year. If Argenis Paz is playing second because Parker can't then maybe but Argenis has swung the bat really well. He just doesn't have the RBI ability, doesn't have power but he slaps the ball around and I think after the weekend he's hitting around .370.
I'm pleased with the personnel and where we are with guys. We feel like we have a couple guys that can come off the bench and impact the game and it gives me some flexibility if I have an injury and if I'm catching Fisher then I have a choice of three or four guys as a DH.