CBB Interview With New Mexico State’s Rocky Ward 2/23/09

Rocky Ward
Rocky Ward

College Baseball Blog WAC correspondent and bleedCrimson.net editor Sam Wasson recently sat down with New Mexico State head baseball coach Rocky Ward. This week he talked with Coach Ward about the opening weekend sweep of North Dakota, the upcoming series against Chicago State, the new WAC schedule as well as his thoughts on the WAC’s performance on opening weekend.

bleedCrimson.net: You put on a pretty big offensive display in the opening weekend but maybe more importantly you had a good defensive showing.
Rocky Ward: Yeah, we’re pleased with the quality of defense and pitching. We didn’t know what to expect from North Dakota. They’re coming out of cold weather, a new Division I program, making the transition. I was really pleased with their quality, I thought they had a good quality ball club. I understand people will look at the scores and say, “they pretty much took it to them.” They made a couple mistakes in the first and third games that expanded the scores, those could have been much closer than they were. We really took it to them pretty well in game one of the doubleheader but overall all three starting performances were outstanding. I don’t know that I can remember in school history that we had three consecutive six plus inning starts out of guys. You’d have to go back a ways. And we got good relief and played solid defense, only four errors on the weekend. A couple of those were kind of silly ones. Two of the four were first hitter of the game, just kind of routine plays to the first basemen and they weren’t quite ready.

Middle infield and outfield play was really good. And really it wasn’t a great offensive weekend outside of what Leo Aguirre did. Some guys had a good weekend, don’t get me wrong, a few guys that we expect to be great offensive performers had below average weekends, to bad weekends. And to go and be able to average 14 [runs] with that said, what are we going to be like when we get it all together.

bc.net: And you also played the entire weekend without your starting first baseman Chris Auten who is a big part of your offense. How long will he be out?
RW: Yeah and we noticed it just in the way the lineup is put together. When you have a guy of that quality that’s not there, it puts a little more pressure on some other guys and put a little bit more pressure on some new players. It’ll be important for us to get him back. This schedule is set up to where it gets a little bit more difficult as we move along and we’re hoping to have him back in a three to four week period. At one point we expected him to only be out the first couple of weekends and he’s got a little back problem and he’s got a little foot problem. The foot is actually going to end up not being an issue because the back is going to take a little bit more time to heal.

We’ll reassess in a couple weeks but we kind of expect it to be three or four weeks until he can get going again.

bc.net: Talk a little bit about some of the newcomers and what you thought of their debuts.
RW: As far as newcomers go, Wade Reynoso had a very solid weekend. Hit the first home run of the year. That’s always a neat thing to do, a prideful thing to do. Especially when he’s a guy that’s not expected, he’ll go and hit some home runs but he’s not a guy that’s expected to hit in the middle of the lineup and hit a bunch of them. And to be the first guy to break that open was pretty neat for him. He matched and played the way he had played. That’s kind of what you look at as new guys, you only know what they are as practice players until you put the uniforms on and that’s really the difference. He didn’t disappoint.

Mike Sodders had an up and down weekend. He didn’t hit the ball very well but played really quality as the second baseman. He’s really a transformed 3B. He played 3B most of the fall but when you look up and you have Reynoso and Sodders both that we like very much. I’m not going to split tim there so we moved him over to second and he played well defensively there. He hit into a little bit of bad luck but he’s one of those guys we think will be really a dangerous offensive guy and he kind of showed it in the alumni game, he hit a ball in the ninth inning over the light tower. Of course those home runs don’t count since it’s an exhibition game. But he doubled to the right centerfield gap and maybe that’ll get him going even those statistics aren’t going to help him any.

Ben Hardy really struggled this weekend. A big right-handed hitting first baseman. He’s a guy that I’ve talked to people on and off about as a guy that could be just a great power guy. But he’s just gotten himself a little bit out of rhythm, he’s pressed a little too much and both him and Sodders didn’t get off the snide as they say. They didn’t have real good weekends so you look at them, does it mean you’ve given up on them? No. It means you won’t know what they’ll be as players until they have a good day and bring themselves back into the mix. We’re hoping both those guys will do that this weekend.

Nate Shaver as a right fielder, a newcomer, played very solid defense and that’s why he’s there. He won the job as the best defensive outfielder we have and then struggled a bit at the plate. But he really hit into some bad luck. Their center fielder at North Dakota, I’d take right now. Not that I’d trade him for Richard Stout but he made about four really plus plays, as good as anybody in the league will make. One of those was on a bases loaded line drive to left center off of Shaver’s bat that he ran down. So Nate, the three balls he hit hard were at guys. So again, he’s a guy that needs to have a good weekend to see what’s going on. Were they disappointments? I’m sure they were to the kids but they weren’t to us because they’re making that transition into Division I baseball and that can’t truly be made until after the season starts. It can’t be made in practice.

D.J. Simon is returning as the No. 3 pitcher behind really quality outings and a big-time outing by [Sebastien] Vendette. And really pitched well and established himself.

The new guys it was kind of a mixed bag. The returning guys all really played well. Marquez was outstanding, no errors and two home runs. Aguirre, I just found out he didn’t make Player of the Week, I don’t know how, I haven’t seen who got it but I don’t know if you can do much better than he did. Stout had really a nice weekend and Farnham had really a nice weekend. We kind of expect that. You know what to expect from your returning guys, you have a shorter range of performance. You kind of know what the minimum is and you know what the maximum is. The new guys are still trying to establish that.

Successful weekend and got some things accomplished. We’ve still got some guys that need to get moving to see what we’re really going to be. And of course we’re not going to be who we are until you get Chris Auten back. With Auten it’s not just about his numbers, it’s about his leadership capabilities and what he’ll do to players around him and allowing them to relax and play a little bit better. It’ll probably be a ways away. And it’ll probably do this ballclub a whole bunch of good. It doesn’t do Chris any good, it doesn’t do me any good but it’ll do the ball club a lot of good having him out for a few weeks and knowing how to deal with that.

bc.net: When you look at your offense, you scored 43 runs in the three games and you were able to do it building innings and didn’t do it all with the home run ball.
RW: I think that’s what I like so much about this offense. It’s a lot more versatile. We can run. There was an inning in game one where they came back and got within 6-4 and we were able to bunt twice in the inning. They messed up the first bunt which made it easy, then we bunted again. We succeeded in four sacrifice bunts on the weekend. Our philosophy isn’t necessarily to bunt when we’re down or when it’s close. Our philosophy is when we’re up two or three and we’ve lost a little momentum then we’ll bunt to try to get on the board again and get momentum back. We accomplished that both times we were able to do it.

Jeff Farnham is a guy that really a year ago we never expected him to run, he was a backup catcher and we just wanted him to catch and go. But this kid can steal bases. Kyle Decatur had a stolen base, he’s obviously a guy that can do it and of obviously Stout who’s in the top in the league. So we don’t just have one guy that can run now, we’ve got a few. So we have a couple more tools we can use.

I thought offensively we really did a fine job executing situations, moving runners when we needed to, scoring runners from third. There weren’t really any failures in those areas. And considering the fact that I thought there were times when we lost a little offensive concentration and we did go out and get a little bit too aggressive and swung at some pitches out of the zone and put the ball into play in some routine plays and still scored an average of 14 runs a game, it was pretty good. There’s room to improve and as a coach you always want to have a little room to improve.

bc.net: This weekend you’ll face Chicago State, what will you be looking for from each of the games and overall improvements from series one to series two of the season?
RW: Well, the key is probably already been stated, that Shaver, Sodders and Hardy get moving. You don’t want to have, especially one of your new players, to have an extended slump to start the year. It’s really tough psychologically on those kids to get through that stuff. It doesn’t kill their seasons by any means but it makes it much more difficult on them to reach their potential.

It’ll be important that our starting rotation to back up good outings, I think not so much for the team but for themselves. The top three, Sturdevant, Vendette and Simon, to go the mound again and replicate what they did, will be important. And we’ll add Noah Garza and Casey Amundson, one of those two guys will start. Now we’re into the true four game series. We started Noah against the Alumni but we knew we were going to split the game between Noah and Casey. It’s a five game week really because we’ve got Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday. So that’s kind of what we’re prepping to. Sturdevant, we’ve still tried to stay comfortable with him so we’ll see what we do. Those five guys will start the five games, which ones I’m not sure yet. I’ll sit down with the staff tomorrow [Tuesday] and we’ll figure out who we’re going to start this weekend.

What we’re really looking for, more importantly, there are a couple guys that got limited playing time, Max Taylor is going to be a factor on this team, Chuck Howard as the backup catcher is going to be a factor on the team. We knew that they’d save their best guy for the last game. When we got it extended in game two I was able to bring Chuck in to catch the last three or four innings of that game and we were able to go ahead and start Farnham all three games. It wasn’t because we don’t trust Chuck it’s just because Jeff’s earned that right to be the key guy in key games and we were able to get that accomplished. We’ll see Chuck Howard at least a start this weekend.

One of the things because of Auten’s situation is we’ve been able to consider having Hardy as a DH and playing Aguirre or Jordan and first and playing Farnham at left when he’s not catching. That kid is going to be the heart and soul of our club and if I can keep him healthy and not over catch him and I can keep him in the lineup by playing him a little bit in the outfield, and he hasn’t played a whole bunch of it, he’s done some of it in the fall, we’ll get a chance to kind of test that. With Chris in there’s too many bodies. Leo Aguirre’s got to be in the lineup somewhere, Chris Auten has to be in the lineup, I think Ben Hardy will have to be in the lineup and those three can only play left, first and DH. So with Chris healthy I can’t really mess with Farnham in the outfield. But with Chris down it gives me the opportunity to do that and still keep other players active.

Jared Jordan played at first base in the third game and did a nice job as a new job, and he pitches. He came in and threw a couple innings and pitched well.

So far really the only guy that struggled a little bit was Corey Hill and he had one of those pitching innings where a guy hit one off the end of the bat and dumped it in and a guy hit a ground ball that went through and he made one mistake and gave up a home run and all of the sudden he’s got the worst line on the weekend where he really didn’t pitch that bad.

bc.net: What can fans expect out of Chicago State?
RW: They went down to Nicholls State and they struggled. They gave up double figure runs to Nicholls State and Nicholls State, unless they’ve changed a lot, they play right on the water down there in Louisiana. The wind blows in and it’s a notoriously very difficult offensive yard. They don’t recruit power guys, they play bunt, hit, run stolen base and they averaged over 10 runs a game in the series against them [Chicago State]. I’m not sure. Everybody’s got a guy that can beat you on the mound. That’s the big neutralizer in this game. You may not have a great offensive but if you can score one run and your guy doesn’t give up anything, you win. You have to be careful with everybody you play, there are no freebies.

Their number one guy really got blown up. He went six innings and gave up 15 runs, 14 earned or something and that was their opening day guy. I wouldn’t expect you’d get the same out of that. Sometimes when you open the season. It happened to UNM, they gave up nine in the first to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, which they proved throughout the rest of the series, that they were much better than. They never did recover and lost that first game but won the next three pretty easy.

bc.net: Around the league this weekend the WAC picked up several pretty impressive wins, Sacramento State beating Arizona, Nevada beating Missouri, Fresno State took two of three from Washington and Hawai’i beat UC-Irvine in the final game of their series. Talk a little bit about some of the improvement from last year to this year in the WAC.
RW: Well I can tell you one thing, people keep talking about how the WAC is back and all this other stuff, last year, the numbers that all of us went through were because of the schedule change. Every single one of us last year had to concede six or seven non-conference games. Now these weren’t games that were conceded before we played the games, they were conceded, it’s 5-1 in the fifth and I can’t go use bullpen because I need them for the conference weekend. So you had to leave pitchers in, there were lots of decisions that were made. We’ve all managed to, knowing the rules, schedule much better than we were able to last year so this is more what I expect. I didn’t know how good Irvine was and where they were ranked, they no hit Hawai’i through seven in the first game, and Hawai’i didn’t have Jared Alexander, he’s out. I don’t know how long he’s out but when you don’t have your number one guy and the guy that’s considered as the best pitcher in our league. You shuffle everybody back and everybody’s in different roles. I thought they would split, even without Alexander. They didn’t quite get that done.

Fresno, Washington’s a club that’s been up and down, they’ve had some pretty down years and they’ve had some pretty decent years and you never really know what you’re going to get. You win two out of three to open the season against a Pac-10 opponent, you’ll take that any time, whoever they might be.

San Jose opened the way they expected to open, quality competition, probably not great. I looked at their line scores and they were all pretty dominant performances. I think St. Joseph’s.

The win, Nevada over Missouri, well it doesn’t surprise me. Missouri in that tournament went 1-3 so they didn’t have a very good tournament any way you look at it.

I think we’ll do that, I think as a league we’re much better positioned this year to perform better against non-league opponents and perform better once we get into league and our midweek opponents. I think you’ll see better non-conference numbers and a lot of that has nothing to do with quality and has everything to do with the way it was scheduled. Was it a good start? Yeah it’s a really good start for the WAC. Had Hawai’i split with Irvine I think you would have thought of it as a really great start for a weekend. And considering Alexander was out, you’ve really got to take that series out of the mix.

bc.net: Maybe the best win of the weekend was Sacramento State over #29 Arizona. The team picked to finish last in the WAC takes a game off of a ranked Arizona team.
RW: Yeah, John Smith and I are really close and that’s unusual for me. I’m not a big guy as far as my opponents, when I play, I go play them and take care of business. John is the only guy, he’s the only guy I’ll go to dinner with. He’s just a good guy. I really like him and I was really happy for him because everybody has kind of already thrown him under the bus, including himself. He’s going, “Rock, I lost four really quality seniors that were the heart and soul of the club.” And he’s looked at what he’s got this fall and he doesn’t feel like he’s replaced them very well. But when I looked at some of the WAC preview stuff, he’s got some pitching back. He lost some real big offensive guys but he’s got some guys back on the mound that performed pretty well for him a year ago. I never really believe in those preseason polls very much. When it’s all said and done they may finish last but I don’t think they’ll go easy. I think they’re a little bit better than what people think..

La. Tech had a weekend, Grambling, it was really kind of an important weekend for Wade. He’d had to listen the entire offseason about how they hosted the [WAC] tournament and they didn’t make it. A lot of WAC preview stuff goes back and talk about the huge disappointment and huge underachievement of his team. I was kind of glad to see him get off and sweep this weekend.

Across the league I think everybody did what they needed to do.

bc.net: The WAC schedule this year, everybody plays everybody one series as opposed to last year when you had to play the top three teams in the league, 20 games.
RW: Right. I like it a lot better of course. I think it’s fairer. The problem with this type of schedule though, what’d we end up with? We ended up with at Fresno, at Reno and at La. Tech. So we get Fresno and Reno, and Reno has not been a place where we’ve historically played real well. But I kind of look at it as a benchmark. Obviously we played pretty well at Fresno last year, winning three of the five we played them there. But Reno has always kind of been a tough place. Now we haven’t gotten killed every time we’ve played there we’ve just had a struggle winning series. I think the league schedule the way it is, much more fair. But I think you end up with that road bias because you rotate every year.

I remember when I was in the Big West, for some reason I had Long Beach and Fullerton, who were clearly the best two teams back then, I either had them both at home or both on the road so it was kind of all or nothing all the time. And it made it kind of difficult. As much as you’d like to think you might be able to manage teams to fit your schedule, I’ve never had a whole lot of success being able to do that… making sure I got my better team when I’ve got to play those teams on the road. It’s not possible.

It would have been really cool to have Fresno here at home. The national champion coming in to home, see really what our potential is for the number of people to show up at the park. Our attendance was really nice this weekend. Over 300 a game, you’re still kind of reaching and hoping some day that we’ll get 500 or 600 consistent and we can look for a couple crowds a year of 1000. We’re not that far away from it. But it was good to see that our base support is pretty solid.