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There's a lot of excitement surrounding the Texas A&M baseball program.
The Aggies ushered in a new era earlier this season when they unveiled beautifully renovated Olsen Field, now called Blue Bell Park. The university also announced last fall the program would be headed to the Southeastern Conference for the 2013 baseball season.
The exciting off-the-field happenings could serve as a distraction in some programs, but for the Aggies, it simply has been business as usual this season.
Sitting at 28-9 overall and 9-3 in the Big 12, the Aggies' primary goals are within reach. They have a chance to win the Big 12 regular season title, are in line to host an NCAA Regional and very much are in the mix to reach the College World Series. However, the Aggies would like to find a way to nail down a national seed.
That quest begins this weekend as the Aggies face Big 12 rival Baylor, which has rattled off 20-straight wins and has an amazing 15-0 record in conference play.
With the BU series coming up this weekend, Texas A&M seventh-year coach Rob Childress took some time out to talk about his team, Baylor and a few other college baseball-related items in the latest edition to our Q & A series.
Sitting at 28-9 on the season entering this weekend's Baylor series, what are your thoughts on the club as things stand?
CHILDRESS: I really like our team moving forward. I think we have very good speed and athleticism. And I think this offense has a chance to be very good before it's said and done. That unit has been pretty good throughout the course of the year. Since we've gotten back from Pepperdine, the offense has been a little sporadic at times, but for the most part, we've found ways to win. I really like Mikey Reynolds atop the lineup, and especially in the field as shortstop. He's really done a nice job. I think we've got one of the top hitters in the country in Tyler Naquin, while Jacob House and Matt Juengel are doing a nice job. Our outfield defense is pretty good. Overall, I like the direction of this team.
While you're talking about the offense, what do you think of the job the pitching staff is doing this spring?
CHILDRESS: Pitching-wise, we've really had a consistent weekend rotation this season. I'm not sure I can go back and look at my entire tenure at A&M and go through a nine-week stretch where we haven't flipped or changed the weekend rotation. So, that's a luxury we have. That's a tribute to those weekend starters, as they continue to grow and we continue to grow some other arms in other key areas. We've got some really talented arms, but we need to develop some guys to handle some late-inning tough situations.
Speaking of starting pitchers, Rafael Pineda has gone through a lot to get where he is today. Your thoughts on his performance this spring?
CHILDRESS: Rafael has gone through an awful lot of trials throughout his life, and he has shown a great deal of toughness in the three years in this program. He hadn't pitched until this year because of shoulder surgery and rehab, things like that. He wasn't able to be 100 percent last season, and he essentially had to be off on his own. Still, he had a great summer and found his way into the rotation. He's a guy who's not going to overwhelm you, but he is a good sinker/slider type of pitcher. He'll sit 86-90 mph on the radar gun, and he'll force contact. He gets a lot of ground balls, and he's the perfect guy to put out there on a Sunday.
There has been a lot said about your bullpen. Do you feel like that unit is a concern as we get closer and closer to the NCAA postseason?
CHILDRESS: No, I don't think it's really a concern. I think we're strong believers in four guys right now -- Jason Freeman, Estevan Uriegas, Parker Ray and Kyle Martin. Those guys have been fabulous for us this season, but there's no doubt we need some other grows to grow and develop. We need to be more consistent in terms of a fourth starter and we need another X-factor out of the bullpen. Gandy Stubblefield, Daniel Mengden, Corey Ray, all three of those guys have shown signs of being special at times. They've also been bad at times. There's not any consistency out of those three, and we need to see some of that.
At this stage in the game, who have been some of the biggest surprises on this team?
CHILDRESS: I think catcher Troy Stein is the biggest surprise. He had 20 at bats last season, but he's doing a really nice job this season. He's receiving well, he's blocking well and he's throwing out the guys he's supposed to throw out. He also has been pretty offensive for us this season. He has really stood out when it comes to our three talented freshmen catchers. In terms of other surprises, Chance Bolcerek isn't much of a surprise to me, but might be to some. We had limited some of his opportunities in the designated hitter role, but he has been very solid. Blake Allemand is another surprise. He thinks he can play out there. And I'll be honest, I didn't think he'd see a lot of opportunities until he was a sophomore. But he made his plan and has been playing with a chip on his shoulder the entire year.
Tyler Naquin and Jacob House have really been rocks in your lineup. Your thoughts on the progressions of those two?
CHILDRESS: Tyler is as good as any player you'll see in college baseball. He's the total package. He plays tremendous defense and has a great arm. He has a great approach, and I love the way he goes about his business. He's very fun to watch out there. Meanwhile, House really worked hard with Andy Sawyers and Justin Seely to improve his game in the offseason. He spent a lot of time in the weight room and is an incredible leader.
This weekend, you'll take on a Baylor team which has won 20-straight games. Your thoughts on that streak and the Bears?
CHILDRESS: They're without question the hottest team in college baseball right now, and they're finding a lot of different ways to win. They've won some pitching duels and they've come from behind to win a lot of games. This is a team with a lot of guys who have both won and lost a lot of games together. They've taken their lumps together. To do what Baylor is doing right now, it takes a lot of different heroes in each game. They seem to have someone different step up in every game. From the coaching staff to the players, Baylor really is doing an amazing job this season.
With the upcoming move to the SEC and your departure from the Big 12. What are your thoughts on the move and the Big 12?
CHILDRESS: You know, I haven't really thought a lot about the SEC. I haven't even let an ounce of my focus go to that. Right now, my only focus is Baylor and the Big 12 the rest of the spring. As for the Big 12 and what I'll miss, I'll obviously miss the regional rivalries that we have with teams in this area. I'll also miss some of the friendships that I've been able to develop over the course of the past 15 years.
A lot of college coaches are big fans of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Would you say you're part of the club?
CHILDRESS: I do, I do think it'll be good for college baseball. I think it's going to get more great players to college baseball for three seasons. For a lot of these great players, this presents more of an opportunity to go to college and either get a degree or get very close to it while playing some college baseball. With that, a kid will know there's light at the end of the tunnel from a professional business career standpoint should baseball not work out. In the end, it might increase the quality of life for a lot of these kids.
One thing you'd change about college baseball ... what is it?
CHILDRESS: It would probably be something to do with the scholarships. The number of scholarships we're allowed to give would be one of them. Another would be to fix some of the grey areas of financial aid around the country. For instance, there are a lot of schools out there not truly dealing with 11.7 scholarships, but essentially more because of different rules in different states. I think all schools should be on equal footing in this regard.
As a coach, which figures in your baseball career have had the greatest impact on your career?
CHILDRESS: You want to talk about inspirations on me as a coach, there are three people: Steve Marrs, my high school coach at Harmony High School (he's now at Pine Tree HS in Longview, Texas) is one. Another is the coach that gave me my first coaching job at this level, and that's Pat Malcheski at Northwood University. Finally, you can put Dave Van Horn (Arkansas) on that list, too.
Kendall Rogers is the college baseball managing editor for Perfect Game and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org