As the Aggies from the Western Athletic Conference gear up for their huge series this weekend at Baylor, Ward has continuously been asked about the series, and whether or not a win or two over the Bears in a two-game series would legitimize his club.
"No", is the routine answer that Ward gives. In his eyes, his program was legitimized a long time ago when they took a series from Wake Forest to begin the season before hitting the road and sweeping a pair of midweek games from Arizona.
In Ward's eyes, this weekend's two-game bout with Baylor isn't about gaining respect or showing the college baseball community that NMSU is for real. It's about gearing up for the postseason and putting on a dress rehearsal for an NCAA Super Regional with his two best starting pitchers against Baylor starters Josh Turley and Trent Blank.
It's a challenge that Ward believes his Aggies are more than ready to face.
"Having an opportunity to go on the road this weekend to play a top-ranked team in their park just for two games, it's a unique situation for us," he said. "I'm looking forward to it. I think it's going to help give us some perspective on the postseason ahead. I have experience in that situation, but our players don't. So this is going to be good for them."
At no time has there been more excitement surrounding this New Mexico State program than now. The Aggies have a 30-11 overall record, are ranked No. 23 in the latest Perfect Game Top 50 rankings, and are well on their way to reaching the NCAA postseason -- an uncommon feat for a WAC team this early in the season -- with an RPI of 21, and a good resume, sitting 5-3 vs. RPI Top 50 teams and 12-7 vs. RPI Top 100 teams.
Being in this good of shape this early in the season postseason bid-wise is uncharted waters for the Aggies. The Aggies went 34-24 in 2011, won 36 games in '10 and finished the '09 campaign with 44 wins. In all those years, the end result was the same -- they failed to reach the NCAA postseason.
Interestingly, in the last two seasons, the Aggies have had one of the nation's best offensive lineups. However, their pitching staff certainly didn't hold up its end of the bargain. For instance, the Aggies had one of the nation's worst pitching staffs the last two seasons, finishing the seasons with earned-run averages of 7.48 and 7.46, respectively.
The pitching staff has been a different story this spring, and it's the chief reason why the Aggies have taken such a giant leap forward -- especially in the respect category. NMSU enters the Baylor two-game set with a 5.06 ERA. Not good by the standards of most, but considering the conditions the Aggies face in hitter-friendly Las Cruces, N.M., on a daily basis, it's not too bad.
"I think we've finally got the right mix with this team. We won a lot of games the last few years, but the big difference this year is we're winning more games against much better competition," Ward said. "What we've done the last two or three years is we've gotten more pitchers that are athletes.
"I know in most instances, I'm not going to get many arms that throw 95 mph, so my big goal here is to get guys that know how to throw a breaking ball for strikes," he said. "Overall, when you look at our pitching staff, we've got some guys who can sit 86-90, but for the most part, all of them can throw a breaking ball for a strike at any point in the count."
The Aggies enter the weekend with a quality one-two punch in junior left-handed pitcher Ryan Beck and junior right-handed pitcher Adam Mott. Beck is an imposing 6-foot-3, 220 pounder, and has a 3.98 ERA in 63 1/3 innings. He's 87-89 mph with his fastball and throws a straight change that Ward said is a nasty pitch most of the time. Meanwhile, Matt is a cut of the same mold. He has a 4.47 ERA in 52 1/3 innings, and has a fastball that typically sits 87-89, occasionally touching 90. Mott, as with Beck, can throw a good straight change and his other breaking pitches for strikes.
Also keep an eye on senior right-handed pitcher, Scott Coffman, who serves as a stud closer for the Aggies. Coffman has a 2.36 ERA in 26 2/3 innings with six saves. He also has struck out 38 and walked nine , while opponents are hitting him at a .178 clip.
Coffman is only 82-85 mph with his fastball, but does a tremendous job of spinning his slider, a pitch that Ward said is almost unhittable at night. His slider sits at 76-78. Coffman also has recently developed a splitter that he often throws against left-handed hitters.
"The big thing you'll notice with our pitchers is that we have guys that spin it and don't give up walks," Ward said. "Looking at our arms, we're the type of team where our breaking pitchers are going to be our strikeout pitches most of the time."
Prospect-wise, it's important to remember the name of right-handed pitcher Tyler Mack. Mack only has a 4.91 ERA in 18 1/3 innings of work. He also has struck out 17 and walked 13, but has much upside.
"Mack didn't have enough command to be a starter for us. He's definitely got the biggest arm on the team with the ability to get to 93-94 with his fastball. It's really rare, at least this year, but he can get there," he said. "He had a tendency to lose command after eight to 10 pitches, but he has reestablished himself in the setup role, and he's doing well there."
While the pitching staff is a pleasant surprise, the offense is continuing where it has left off each of the past few seasons. The Aggies again are one of the nation's best hitting teams with a .318 batting average. They're led at the plate by a tremendous trio in Zac Fisher, Parker Hipp and Zach Voight.
Fisher and Voight are tied in the RBI department with 50 each, while Hipp is having a great campaign, hitting .340 with 40 RBIs. He also has a .487 on-base percentage. Also keep an eye on Kurt Snowley, who's hitting .344 with 22 RBIs and a .417 OBP, and talented prospect Tanner Waite, who has induced a nation-leading 52 walks this spring.
"The big strength with this offense is that we're pretty good up and down the lineup," he said. "I'm pretty sure I'd put some of our top hitters against some of the best around the country right now."
Good thing for the Aggies, they'll have a chance to prove their worth both offensively and from a pitching standpoint, both this weekend against Baylor and in the NCAA postseason.
"We're good enough, that's for sure," he said. "The big thing we just don't have compared to some other teams out there is playoff experience. But you know what, we're going to have to get that at some point. It might as well be now."
DUGOUT CHAT: Baylor C Josh Ludy
You've made some significant strides offensively since last season. What has been the big key to your surge?
LUDY: Honestly, I don't feel like I've made a lot of offensive adjustments. For me, I think it's just focusing a little bit more on what the pitcher is trying to do, and figuring out how to approach him. Being a catcher kind of helps me out because I tend to outthink those guys sometimes.
You guys obviously lost a heartbreaker to California in the Houston Regional title game last season. Is that something that fuels your fire, and something that has been a rallying point?
LUDY: Without a doubt, yes. We have a lot of guys back from last season, and even with the new guys, that's all we talked about during the entire fall. Once you go through something like that with your brothers, you don't forget about it. You just learn from it and get better from it.
Offensively, it seems like you guys seem to always get it done no matter what. Your thoughts on the unit?
LUDY: Oh yeah, one through nine in the batting order, we're always picking each other up no matter the situation. If someone doesn't get it done, there's always someone there waiting to pick you up. We just trust each other and find ways to get it done. That has been a big reason for our offensive success thus far.
That 24-game winning streak. Can you even really explain it?
LUDY: Ah man, you have to give the beaver all the credit. We didn't start winning all of those games until he showed up. But honestly, we just have a lot of swagger throughout this team. Whether it's the offense or pitching staff, we're always confident that someone out there will somehow get the job done.
With the way BU has played this season, it almost seems like you're somewhat of a team of destiny. Does it feel like that to you guys at times?
LUDY: Yeah, we were just thinking about that the other night. You know, we go to Texas A&M and don't play particularly well, but we still somehow found a way to win. At some point you just sit back and say all right, you don't ever feel like you're out of a game. That's our team right now.
Being the catcher, how do you assess the pitching staff? You guys don't have a lot of flamethrowers, but each arm seems to get it done?
LUDY: Yeah, we don't really have a lot of flamethrowers, but we've got a lot of guys that just go out there and find ways to execute the game plan. Our pitchers are extremely though and very competitive. I think that combination will take us a long way as the season progresses. Those guys just love to go out there and take care of business.
Kendall Rogers is the college baseball managing editor for Perfect Game and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org