bleedCrimson.net: Your thoughts on the weekend series against Fresno State?
Rocky Ward: Well it didn't go as planned. We came in to the weekend with a losing streak that was weighing on us a little bit and the history of the Fresno State games in Las Cruces has not been good. We haven't played well at home against them for some reason, one of the only clubs that we haven't. They had won the last two games against Sacramento State and had scored pretty well and that had been their problem. They swung the bats pretty well in the first and last games, of course neither team swung the bats very well in the second game. Same thing, we've struggled recently scoring and getting key hits and we had some opportunities early in the game that we didn't capitalize on and that's been the theme. We haven't pitched terribly well in the middle of games and it's been a problem for us. That kind of bit us again
Game two Adam Mott and Scott Coffman were awesome. We struggled throughout the game offensively but the game two starter for them was really good and we did a really good job against him. We hit a lot of balls hard. It was probably one of the best baseball games that's been played in quite a while. Lots of great defensive plays, a lot of balls hit hard and a lot of pretty good pitching as well. To give up the run in the seventh and then to turn around and get one on top of it was pretty important to us and then we got the longest outing of Scott Coffman's career, four and two-thirds of baseball where he was just awesome again. We get the walk off home run out of Zach Voight which ended up being a bit of a two-sided coin because in the celebration afterwards he sprained his ankle and we lost him for an undetermined amount of time.
So we're down our starting shortstop and in game three Bryce Griffin who had had very little playing time played quality baseball, didn't make any errors, he's just not near the offensive player that Zach Voight is so that put a little bit of a hole in our lineup. I moved Robert Lecount up into the five hole and he had a good weekend. He hit a mammoth home run late but again we'd given up too much in the middle of the game to stay in it.
It wasn't a weekend that went as planned but we did stop both streaks, the losing streak to Fresno at home and the losing streak in the season which are both good things. We've spent the last couple of days going over what we have left to do. We still have a chance to be the conference champion. We need some help from Hawai'i but not too much as it turns out. We need to win three and they need to win two out of three and that combination makes us the conference champion. So as bad as things have been in this last stretch, we've done enough work prior to now to be in a position where we can still win the conference championship. It's not all in our hands but more importantly we need to play well over the next five games. We've got UNM tomorrow up there and we'll be playing those two games, UNM and Bakersfield, without Zach Voight. We'll need to be a little careful in how we manage our pitching staff because we have to have everybody healthy and ready to go when we walk into San Jose.
So we've got a pretty good challenge ahead of us but it's no different than what we've done for the last two years. We've struggled against Hawai'i and Fresno period. Of course the disappointment is that Fresno is not the team they've been in the past even though tradition is a strong thing and they have a WAC conference title streak still in hand. They haven't won the regular season but they've won the regular season or conference championship for six years in a row or something like that. So they'll still be a team to contend with. The funny thing about Fresno and Hawai'i is they don't have these advantages, the historical advantages over us in tournament play. I reminded my ball club that we were the first team to beat Fresno in the conference tournament and I also reminded them that Hawai'i is a completely different team when they're away from the island and if we run into them in the conference tournament, they won't have the advantages that they do when they play at home.
It's a big ball park in Mesa but it also has big gaps and I've felt, I haven't spoken it to this point but I've felt like this year's team is a little bit more suited for that ballpark than teams in the past. We've got a lot of doubles guys and it's good doubles ball park. It's not a good home run ball park because it's huge in the gaps and you can't get it out to center field because they have a huge wall out there. We feel like that we're suited for that particular park and that we'll do okay there.
We've spent the last couple days regrouping a little bit and talking about how we're going to attack the next five games and I think the kids feel like they've had a chance to take a deep breath through this tough run. We've talked about it a little bit but two on the road against top ranked Baylor, three on the road against Hawai'i which is always a difficult place to play, when you combine that with the pressure of being a student-athlete and the simple fact that we had to come off the island and straight into finals and then actually in the middle of finals we had to play Fresno, there were a bunch of outside influences impacting a bunch of different things. You can make make excuses for everything and that's not the intention but at this stage when you've got through a rough stretch it doesn't hurt to go back and say there are some reasons why that are not going to be in existence over the next week. We're rested up and we're healthy. We're going to be playing against ball clubs that we've historically handled well and school's out and we don't have the pressure of the studies. We can concentrate on playing baseball.
bc.net: Even though you lost the third game of the series do you think there were some signs that the offense was starting to come around a little bit?
RW: Yeah I do. I think at this stage of the year whenever you have to shuffle the lineup because of injury it's a little more difficult to do now than it is to do at other parts of the season and that's just because we were so established with our lineup and then all of the sudden you have some changes. Sometimes that can help a little bit but I think it took us a little bit, we moved Lecount up to the five hole and Fisher back into the four hole and obviously Robert performed well in that position. So I took some hope in it. It was a little hard when we got blown up pretty well on the mound, they just went at us and we couldn't control the game in the middle of the game again, but one of the things I've talked to this pitching staff about is that through the first two-thirds of the season we had an offense that was really potent and that they relied on. They knew that if they walked a guy, hit a guy, gave up a base hit that it wasn't life and death and that our offense was going to come back and make up for it and we haven't had that feeling of late because our offense has really struggled to score and it's put additional pressure on the pitching staff to try to be little too fine, try to strike people out when they should be just trying to get the ball put in play. Through this stretch we've actually played much better defensively than we even did through the winning streak, at least fielding percentage-wise. That bodes well for us. Part of when you've gone 4-10, there are a lot of reasons for it and one of the reasons is we haven't been playing well around mistakes. We haven't had as many, not as many errors, but evert time we've made an error the opponent has capitalized on it where early in the season we pitched around or played defense around those mistakes.
There are some signs. If we can get our offense moving again it'll take some pressure off our pitching staff. If we can continue to play high fielding percentage defense that'll benefit us somewhere, some time and do a little bit better job pitching around our mistakes. I think it goes hand-in-hand that when the offense is playing well you don't worry as much about the defensive mistake quite as much because you figure that you're going to take care of it by scoring a few more runs. It'll be an interesting run through this stretch because New Mexico is playing very good baseball. They were playing very good baseball when we beat them earlier in the season. They'd come off of a three-game sweep of a pretty good Gonzaga team and they'd come off of winning two of three against TCU. Each of the three times we've played them on Tuesdays, they were coming off successful weekends. I don't think it'll be much different other than we were also playing pretty good off those stretches. The game's got some things on the line. The Rio Grande Rivalry, we've been advised that if we win the game that we'll tie New Mexico in that cup and it'll be the first time in history that we've tied and we've never won it. There's a little bit to play for just beyond what we need to do for ourselves.
Going into San Jose, it'll be an interesting series. As all series are the first game will be very important. I think that San Jose probably feels that they need to win two of three to get into the tournament and they might feel like they need to win them all. They're 5-10 and LA Tech and Fresno are 6-9. If you win the first one it'll give us some confidence but it'll put a whole lot of pressure on San Jose State and there are two different motivators. One is a positive motivator, a chance to win a conference championship, and on Friday after we get done with our first game we'll already have a pretty good idea of what's happening in the league because the rest of the league is playing Thursday/Friday/Saturday while we play Friday/Saturday/Sunday. While we're playing our game on Saturday we'll already know whether it'll be meaningful or not for seeding and that can be an advantage or disadvantage. San Jose may already know they're out and we may already know we're not playing for a championship or we may be playing for a championship. Those are types of things that as coaches we'll have to manage and really try to keep the players on task.
Really the most important thing for us is to get our traction again and get some momentum going into the conference tournament. That's been our problem the last couple years is we've kind of limped into the conference tournament and didn't have much momentum going in and were trying to use game one of the conference tournament to get us that momentum and it was a little too much. It'd be good to have some momentum going in. Whether or not we're the 1, 2 or 3 seed, to win three, four or five in a row going into the tournament will mean a lot in how well we play in the tournament and will mean a lot to the selection committee for regional bids. I think maybe our guys have gotten the cart ahead of the horse a little bit and instead of playing the series and for a conference title, we've been playing to protect our power rating a little bit and that's just not a healthy position because it's almost like looking past a series and it's trouble when you're looking past an opponent to something that's going to happen in the future instead of just taking care of business today.
So as a coaching staff and as a ball club we've tried to get them mentally on task and we've asked them to pick up their intensity levels a little bit, we've asked them to take more responsibility for their own individual performance, we've asked them to be more supportive and less emotional when a teammate doesn't play well and it is a combination of both. When a guy makes a mistake, when your shortstop makes an error, the pitcher says, "Hey, it's alright, here's another ground ball." Start trusting each other a little bit more and stop putting as much pressure on things we can't control very much.
bc.net: Is this week of five games in six days beneficial for the team in that it's similar to what you'll be facing in the conference tournament?
RW: Yeah, it's okay. It does kind of set it up, it's very similar to what you might do in a conference tournament. You're at the time of year where all the pitchers are in about as good of condition as they're going to be so they can handle the extra innings. We'll need to play pretty good defense and we'll need to have a game or two in that stretch where we go win the game with the bat to take some pressure off the pitching staff. Those are all the kinds of things you need in order to make it work.
I'm going to approach the next five inning by inning the best we can. You can't control when the opponent is going to hit three balls off the end of the bat, flares into the outfield, and score a run off you. You can't control those things. We have to do a little bit better job of handling it when our baseball luck isn't good. You have to learn to make your own luck. You can't get frustrated and go give up a couple innings offensively because everybody's trying to go out and hit a 4-run home run. I think that we've done that a little bit.
One of the good things is we've had a couple real good days of practice. Our guys have been positive and we've had an opportunity to have dad be with the ball club and fix some swings. Everybody feels like they've gotten their mechanical adjustments done and feel a little better about themselves and all you need to do is get going and get some confidence going. Coaches talk about confidence a lot and players playing confident and teams playing confident but confidence doesn't come before mechanics. You have to have a good idea of what you're trying to do, you have to have a good game plan and you've got to trust yourself. If you have a good game plan and your mechanics are solid then you're going to have some success and that helps build confidence. When you deal with a cause and effect relationship, confidence is an effect, it's not a cause. You can't just say, "I'm confident today." That doesn't work. You have to have some substance with it and I think that's what we've really worked hard the last couple days. Getting back to the real world, what I'm trying to do as a hitter, what I'm trying to do as a pitcher. What are my strengths, what are my weaknesses. This is not necessarily the time of year where you can spend a lot of time on your weaknesses. The key is really is to spend as much time making your strengths as consistent as possible. That's where we're headed and what we're trying to get done.
bc.net: How much of a factor during this stretch has the lack of practice time been?
RW: I think it's a factor but it's something you really can't do anything about. It's not something we discuss because it's not something we can control. It's something a lot of coaches talked about a couple years ago when they shortened the season is that the one thing the coaches realized and didn't really think about when they shortened the season was it was going to shorten the number of practice days between games. It's kind of a double whammy because it's not just the number of practice days but it's the number of days between games because you still have to balance the emotional and physical strain on our players with the amount of time we practice. You can take a team and bury them by over-practicing them. You have to be a little more careful because you don't have as much time between games. So I think it's a factor but it's not something we can do very much about and as a result you just have to get the practice time you can.
bc.net: With Zach Voight out with his ankle injury Bryce Griffin played shortstop on Saturday and Tanner Rust played the final inning there. What's your game plan for the upcoming games with him out?
RW: Bryce has been a good shortstop and he kind of got in here under a tough deal because Voight, Hipp and Lecount established themselves early as really important players on the ball club and so he didn't get very much playing time and he's not a plus offensive player. He's kind of struggled to make the adjustment offensively to this level. We've spent a little more time working with him the last couple of days trying to find a little bit more of a simpler swing that he can replicate easier. I think he'll play well defensively, I'm not concerned about that. I'm a little concerned about him offensively even though we closed the stance and simplified the swing a little bit to kind of get him in a position where he can get the ball in play more consistently. He's a pretty good bunter so we may bunt a little more in his spot. But we're trying to find an option for a second guy. Tanner Rust was a high school shortstop but hasn't been in high school for three years and hasn't played there for three years but there may be some situations where we may need to pinch hit for Bryce late in the game, much like we did with Justin Lucero and Wes Schneider a few years ago. It ended up being quite successful. We don't have that much hitting depth on the bench but we do have Andy Lyon and Cody Edwards that have pretty serious power where if we're down two or three in a game with first and second and two out and Bryce is coming to the plate, we're going to give one of those two guys a shot and Tanner Rust is going to have to play an inning or two at shortstop. Tanner is a tough kid. He won't make any flashy plays but he'll stick his nose in there and his teammates trust him.
There's a kid named Josh Loera who hasn't gotten hardly any playing time at all. He's a local produce who played at NMMI and made the ball club kind of as a number five or six infielder. He hasn't been on the 26-man squad for conference games but he continues to work hard and he may be a kid that might be more suited. He's not really a shortstop, he's a 2B. We'll experiment with the possibility of moving Parker Hipp to shortstop and Josh Loera to second base in a pinch hit situation. There may be scenarios where Tanner Rust isn't available, he's playing first or he's DH'ing. If I DH Tanner Rust then I can't use him as a defensive replacement without losing my DH. We're working at that. It's a little bit of a stretch but Josh Loera is a kid that busts his but every single day and his teammates trust him. He's not a great athlete, he's kind of a small kid, he runs okay, he's got a below average arm. He doesn't grade out as a Division I athlete but he just plays hard and I think in those circumstances that'll work. I talked to Josh about it today. I said, "You haven't been traveling with the team. You start getting your mind around the fact that you might be playing second base in the ninth inning of the championship game. That's the only reason I'd bring you is if you're willing to be prepared for that possibility." I said it to him because I wanted to see a reaction, see how he handled it and he handled it the way I thought. He said, "Okay coach." He'll go work and get ready for that opportunity. Whether or not it happens or not, nobody knows but I know that the kid is going to be prepared for it.