Interview With Rocky Ward – Tempe Super Regional Preview

2008 Baseball ChampionshipThe College Baseball Blog contributor and bleedCrimson.net editor Sam Wasson spoke with New Mexico State head coach Rocky Ward about the upcoming Super Regional matchup between the WAC’s Fresno State and the #3 national seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Arizona State Sun Devils. Having faced the Bulldogs nine times during the regular season and having coached NMSU at Arizona State in the 2003 Regional, Coach Ward was able to provide some unique insight into the Super Regional matchup this weekend.

Sam Wasson: What are Fresno State’s chances against the #3 national seed Arizona State?

Rocky Ward: I think it’s good for them because they haven’t played them. Arizona State has a lot of tradition but they have as much year to year tradition against Fresno. They won’t know Fresno very well. I think that Fresno will have a pretty decent advantage from that standpoint. Sometimes when the teams don’t know each other very well the lower ranked team on paper has a little bit of an advantage because sometimes they have a little bit more motivation, they’re a little hungrier. It’s going to be the same type of things. When you’ve got a lower ranked opponent playing at a host’s facility game one is absolutely imperative. They have to win game one. If they win game one I think it makes it a 50/50 shot for them.

It will be really interesting to see what [Mike] Batesole does because he’s been going with [Justin] Wilson as his number one guy, the left-hander, and he’s done pretty well in that role. He’s actually done extraordinarily well in that role and [Tanner] Scheppers being out doesn’t help them but they still pitched well and played good defense. What a lot of people don’t understand as well as I do through experience is that quality pitching staff’s have a lot more to do than people think with the quality defense that’s played behind it. Fresno’s really a quality ballclub. They’re very very good in the outfield. The center fielder covers outstanding range, the right fielder throws very well. [Steve] Susdorf is an All-American. [Eric] Wetzel the 2B was an All-Conference guy and he’s got as much range as I’ve seen a 2B have in quite some time. Tommy Mendonca is their third baseman, as a third base coach he talks to you all the time. There aren’t very many of them. Most third basemen don’t say a thing to you. Tommy talks to you all the time and you can’t help but like the kid. I like him he’s got a great personality and he’s only got six or seven errors on the year. He’s been a real quality third baseman for them.

I think defensively that’s been a part of how they’ve been able to overcome the loss of Scheppers. At the same time, now when you’re dealing with the three game set the depth that they lost with the loss of Scheppers isn’t as important as it was. That would come back and be important if they got to Omaha but I think to be honest, their biggest risk was the conference tournament with six teams in it and you have to play four to win. They pretty much walked through the thing and didn’t have to get into the pitching depth. They did a little bit in the fact that they got beat on Sunday, they had to do it. But they’ve got enough. They’ve got enough pitching where the loss of Scheppers in a three game series won’t be felt as much as it may have been the last two weeks and they survived that pretty well. It will be interesting to see who they go with. It’s kind of hard to flip the rotation but I would guess that they’ll stay with Wilson as the game one starter and then Allison would be game two. The one guy that has struggled for the last four or five outs has been the Miller kid. He carried them for a period of time. Early in the year when they weren’t playing well, every time he showed up they won. He was 6-0 at one point. I don’t think he’s won a game for a month.

Holden Sprague who has been their number four guy, closer and middle relief, he’s been asked to do everything, that kid’s really been golden. But his value has been more of a result of the fact that he’s a command pitcher. He doesn’t strike out a ton, but he actually strikes out more than you’d expect him to with his stuff. He’s a mid 80’s multiple breaking ball, straight change guy who gets the ball put into play and they play good defense. He doesn’t build innings. Where we really struggled with him is he just didn’t ever give us anything. If you drew a walk you had to foul off two or three pitches to do it. If you were going to score you were going to have to get basehits to get it done. So I think they have plenty of pitching depth and with Susdorf and Mendonca from the standpoint of RBI power, the only thing that has been a negative for Fresno has that at points during the season they’ve been somewhat inconsistent offensively. I said that before they came in and played at our place and they lit us up and from that point forward they’ve consistently put up pretty good offensive numbers for about a month now. That’s what’s really made a big difference for them is they’ve always played pretty good defense but they were shut out a few times. If you go back and look at their record they may have been shut out four times this year. With aluminum bats and the fields we play on you really shouldn’t get shut out if you’re offense is somewhat reasonable in its approach.

Arizona State is a good offensive ballclub. I don’t know much about their personnel, we haven’t played them in three or four years. I just know what they did early in the year as far as being 20 something and 1 to start out.

I think it’s a good draw for Fresno because it’s a new location for them. The one thing that will be a quiet advantage to them that they may not know they have. If it’s played at Packard and the way they’ve always kept it, it’s like a desert infield. It’s extraordinarily hard and it’s extraordinarily fast and so is Fresno’s infield. Fresno’s infield was the hardest, fastest playing surface that we played on all year. A lot of people when they come down into the desert to play have trouble playing in those conditions. The ball just jumps at you a little bit faster and choppers go a little bit higher. I think will play very much like Fresno’s field plays. I think that facility is very similar except that I think Packard is probably more of an offensive yard than Fresno’s is. I think that may give Arizona State a slight advantage in that regard. Fresno does not play in a tough offensive park, generally if you hit a ball good it goes [out] but you don’t get any cheap stuff. At Arizona State depending on wind conditions and humidity levels, there are occasions that some fly balls will leave there, similar to what happens at our ballpark. When we had Becher in those years and we were hitting 100 home runs a year we had a certain group of people saying that the only reason we did that is because the wind blows out at 30mph, we’re at 4000 foot elevation, it was all about the park and not about my players. But that same year, and I’m not enhancing anything, I guarantee we hit 100 balls out of that park [Packard] in a batting practice session three years ago at least. Just in batting practice. The ball carries equally as well at Packard Stadium as it does in our park. I think that they [Arizona State] has a slight advantage that way though Fresno with the experience of them playing in Las Cruces will help them as far as the way is going to carry and how outfielders are going to have to take angles and the experience of playing on their own rock hard infield will help them playing at ASU.

I think it’s going to be one of the better series and I think Fresno has a legitimate chance to get through there but I do believe very strongly that they have to win game one.