Feb. 20, 2009
There's a quiet optimism hanging in the air when veteran Wave players and head coach Steve Rodriguez discuss the 2009 season.
First as a player, then as an assistant coach, and finally as a head coach, Steve Rodriguez has pretty much seen it all when it comes to Pepperdine Baseball. But despite being a significant part of the Waves' program for more than 15 years and playing for and coaching some great teams, Coach Rod is clearly impressed and taken aback by the semblance of talent he and his assistant coaches have compiled for 2009. Now, neither he nor his players are making any promises in the way of wins or titles, but at the same time, there will be a lot of disappointment in the dugout if this particular Waves team isn't able to reach Omaha and the College World Series.
What does this team list as its immediate goals outside of playing in the College World Series?
"Our immediate goals right now would be related to consistency, especially on the mound and at the plate. We want to be able to compete on the mound and throw strikes, and throw strikes in the right places. And then offensively, we need to make sure that we're having quality at-bats and competing each and every pitch.
"Defensively, we have to make fewer and fewer mistakes and allow the pitchers to have a lot of confidence when the ball is hit. They have to know that their fielders are going to pick it up and throw it across the diamond. And also, if the pitchers do give up a couple of runs, they have to possess confidence in that their offense is going to be good enough to recover from the deficit. I think the overall consistency with this team, just like with any other team, is probably going to be the key to our success."
What do you consider to be some of the strengths of this year's squad?
"The strengths to our season include the maturity of our guys. We have so many returners and it's pretty exciting for us to actually be able to write up a lineup where there are a lot of familiar names in it. We know the strengths and weaknesses of every guy, and I really do think right now the strengths are outweighing the weaknesses quite a bit, so it's going to be a pretty exciting time for us this year."
Describe the level of camaraderie you've been witnessing between your players during the offseason.
"I believe there's always an underlying element that makes a team successful whether its chemistry, camaraderie, or whatever else you want to call it. But basically, the overall makeup of a team can really push players through the hard times as well as enhance the good times. And when you have those types of guys who really enjoy each other and want each other to do very well and are willing to do whatever they have to do for the other person, it makes the team very special. And these guys have done an amazing job in the past year by taking care of each other. As a coach, you're just very proud when you see these end results."
Is there anyone who stands out from this group as a bona fide team leader?
"With leaders, I always try to avoid saying who's captain and who's not because it's always subject to my personal opinion, but I believe we have so many leaders that lead in so many different ways whether it's on or off the field. Guys who lead in the dugout, may not be able to play a whole lot. We have guys on the mound who really compete and lead with how they perform or how they work. With regards to leadership, or to praise those who have done an amazing job, I think each one of our guys brings something to the table that is a significant strength that nobody else could bring. What makes this team pretty special is that everybody does something each and every day that kind of makes me go, `wow that was pretty impressive.' I like seeing those type of characteristics in players and it's fun to coach this team."
What do you see as the team's toughest tests?
"The key test will be just getting the first couple of games out of the way and letting guys relax. I don't think there are any significant games where you go, `ooh, this is going to be a big test.' I think every game is a big test because I really do believe you're playing this game more than you are the opponent. And if you can play the game well, chances are you're going to be pretty successful. But the biggest thing we have to worry about is getting started off on the right foot, being confident and playing well, and hopefully that carries us over at the beginning of the year."
What's your reaction to the amount of early preseason recognition your team and certain individuals have already received?
"It's always great to be recognized early on in the year, whether it's a team ranking or if individuals are receiving preseason All-America honors. It's great to recognize what players did in the past, but what's a greater pleasure for me are the accolades that arrive at the end of the year, because those mean someone had a great season. Hopefully the same accolades we're getting at the beginning of the year, we can again receive at the end."
What needs to happen on offense to make up for the loss of (2008 MLB draft picks) Eric Thames and Chase d'Arnaud?
"Offensively, it's going to be tough to replace a Chase d'Arnaud or an Eric Thames, so last year's juniors who are now seniors are going to have to play a bigger part and their job is going to be picking up that slack. We have some tremendous athletes coming back with regards to Denny Duron and David Harris, and some freshmen like Aaron Gates and Brian Humphries, and power hitters like Ryan Heroy and Colin Rooney. We have the ability, but will we hit that many home runs? I don't know. But the truth is, in terms of athleticism and competitiveness; I think we're going to be a step higher than we were last year."
How do you feel about having the bulk of last year's pitching staff coming back intact?
"When you have your whole pitching staff return it's a plus and a minus. You have everybody back, which means you just hope that they're getting better and last year they were pretty good. We had a tremendous amount of success in 2008 and reached the regional championship game, but I still think we had a few too many walks and they understand that as well.
"Having this high level of maturity and experience on your team creates the expectation that they'll grow each year and I can only hope that they've gotten better -- I think they have.
"When you have tremendous student-athletes like we have here, I can't help but look forward to seeing our pitching staff in action with regards to the starting four that we're going to have on the weekends, the middle relief guys and then our closers who are all coming back. It's going to be an exciting time for the Waves on the mound."
Are there any members of your decorated freshman class fans can expect to see on Opening Day?
"The opening day lineup is always hard to predict, especially right now since our spring season really hasn't started yet. Brian Humphries did an amazing job in the fall during the five games that we played and Aaron Gates did a great job for us in the designated hitter role. We're also looking to him to step in and make an impact pitching wise. Cody Yount has done a really good job for us hitting and playing at first base. It's going to be very interesting to see some of these players, not so much freshmen, but new guys like Colin Rooney, possibly at third base, and Bryce Uhrig on the mound. They're going to have a chance to really step up and do something special and I really do hope they take advantage of their opportunities."
When this season comes to a close, what needs to happen for you to consider it a success?
"The steadfast answer that everyone on this team is going to give is nothing short of an appearance at Omaha. However, I really believe that by just watching your team grow and having them become successful is of utmost importance, because once you get into the regionals there's a lot of luck and injuries that always play a part and that you just really have no control over. But I think as long as we can get to the postseason and we put ourselves in a position where we have a chance to compete at that level, that's all I can ask for."
Can you explain Pepperdine's dedication to the defensive aspect of the game?
"We put a large emphasis on defense because it does win games. Everything comes down to defense and pitching, so if you play great defense and your pitchers throw strikes then you're going to win a lot of games because you're keeping the ball in play. We're out here everyday taking ground balls and practicing live defense, all in an attempt to make it as game-like as we can."
You only made nine errors as a middle infielder last season. How do you keep down your number of errors?
"I have to keep working on my skills every day. I can't take a day off. If I do, then I'll get worse. I come out to the field every day trying to get better and taking more ground balls. That's the key to success."
What's your approach when it comes to stealing bases?
"I can't be afraid to be thrown out, and I can't be afraid to get picked off, and even if I do, then I still have to steal the next time right away. I can't let my opponents see that I'm scared."
What do you consider to be this team's strengths?
"Well, I think our pitching is going to be real good. We have (Nick) Gaudi and (Nate) Newman coming back and (Scott) Alexander will step up. Those three alone are good enough not to mention (Matt) Bywater and (Robert) Dickmann, who are also pretty good. With the number of starters coming back from last year, we should be good all around."
How do you feel about all the preseason recognition you've received so far?
"I owe everything to the coaches and my teammates pushing me, and previous coaches as well, because they made me the player I am today. They allow me to be aggressive when I get on base and to steal bases and I appreciate that. I just want to do what I can for the team and help them win."
What parts of the season are you most looking forward to?
"The trip to Wichita State, and I think we have a real legitimate shot at making the College World Series. This is my last year, so let's get out there and do some good."
How do you feel you were able to succeed in your first full season as a closer in 2008?
"One of the main things you have to know about being a closer is that you have to be ready for any single game, because you never know when you're going to have to come in and be ready to battle in a tough, close game. It's tough to come out here and be ready to go every single day, but being able to do that day-in and day-out proved to be my main source of success."
What are your senior season expectations?
"To be able to reproduce what I did last year would be great. I feel like I did real well, but I'm always trying to do better. Expectation wise, I just want this team to win. This team has done really well, but we haven't had a conference championship to show for our efforts over the last few years. That will be one of our goals, as will to go further in the NCAA Regionals."
How do you feel the rest of the bullpen is shaping up, in particular your set-up men?
"The bullpen is going to be very good since we have a lot of returning talent. I think Bryce Uhrig, who we just got from Santa Barbara City College, and Tyler Hess, who was a freshman last season, have both been making great strides and are becoming better and better."
Is it easy to pitch knowing you have a quality defense playing behind you?
"As a pitcher, the defense has always been of great importance, especially at Pepperdine. We've always had a good infield, and it's nice to know I can go out there and throw ground balls and know they're going to be outs. It's key for any closer to come in late in a game and get those quick outs."
What do you consider the perfect season?
The perfect season of course ends with us winning a national championship."
Junior Trent Diedrich is ready to shoulder the responsibility of managing a highly regarded and experienced pitching staff in 2009. Diedrich also hopes to hit over the .300 mark and add some power to a lineup that is without All-WCC honorees Eric Thames and Chase d'Arnaud.
What are you most looking forward to in 2009?
"I just want to get back into the swing of things. It's been a long offseason for me personally, missing most of the fall due to an injury, but I'm completely recovered and I'm excited to be back."
Have you established any personal goals for this season?
"Unfortunately, I haven't had a year yet where I've batted over .300, so that would be a goal of mine. I'd like to do that personally, but also, as the catcher, I want to lead this team through the season. I want to push everybody, keep them working hard and accountable, but doing it through my actions and not my words."
What are your thoughts on this year's team?
"As a group, we're really tight knit this year. There are no rivalries or conflicts on the team, and we're all here to support each other as one big family. Whenever someone on this team is going through a tough time, we're going to make sure we're there for each other."
What's your take on the pitching staff?
"I'm excited about catching for them, because pretty much everyone is coming back except for Brett Hunter. He had a good arm, which we'll miss, but there's a lot of returning experience, all with a full year under their belts."
What do you consider your responsibilities going into this season as the everyday catcher?
"Like last year, the coaches want me to be the everyday guy. I want to be that guy as well and lead the pitching staff. I think I have everyone's respect and I know that I can and will lead them."
How do you see splitting playing time with freshman Nathan Johnson?
"Nate's an outstanding catcher, who is certainly further along than I was as a freshman, and as a result, he's going to see a lot more immediate playing time. And since there are only two of us catchers, he's going to have to play regularly. Nate works really hard and I'm excited to see how he comes along."
What has this team done in the offseason to improve its power and bat speed?
"All of us are working hard in the weight room three times a week and getting up close to 5:30 a.m., and then we're hitting in the cages every day. A lot of guys had really good summers; David Harris was one of them with 13 home runs, so there's going to be a lot of us who are capable of making up for the power we lost between Eric (Thames) and Chase (d'Arnaud).
Corner outfielder and senior David Harris blasted more than a dozen home runs for his summer league team in Virginia last year and hopes to build on the four he smacked for Pepperdine in 2008.
As one of the senior leaders in the outfield, are you putting any more pressure on yourself to perform?
"No, not really, and that's what we have the rest of the team here for. Everyone else is able to pick up the slack when you're not doing well."
How do you feel about the freshman outfielders that were brought in for this season and in what field do you think you'll be playing?
"We have some great young guys coming in who have a lot of talent, and it will be fun watching them the next couple of years and seeing how good they become. They should do real well. I'll be in one of the corner spots, left or right, I really don't have a preference."
What did you do over the summer that allowed you to hit so many home runs, and do you anticipate keeping up your pace in the spring?
"I just worked on the basic mental aspects. Hitting is a lot about approach and figuring what kind of approach you should have depending on the count. I hope to have a good season at the plate since this is my last year here and I'm looking forward to it. It's pretty exciting. We have a lot of good guys and I think our offense is going to surprise some people."