BON: Obviously Aggie fans are generally thrilled with the move to the SEC because football is king. It was clearly a big step down in basketball, but that's rarely been something A&M cared much about. In baseball, though, you guys were usually right there in the Big 12 race the last few years, whereas the move from the second-RPI league to the first-RPI league now has you as a bubble team barely getting into the Tourney. From a pure baseball perspective, how has the move affected the program?
JZ: What is this "basketball" thing you speak of? The impression I've gotten is that the majority of Aggies understand and appreciate that we're now part of the best college baseball conference in the country. Obviously that means that we're going to have a harder time making it through conference play and into the postseason, but I'm a firm believer that this A&M program will only benefit from the SEC move in the long run. I think recruiting is definitely improved by the move; similar to football, despite what some Big12 loyalists would love to claim, kids want to play in the best conference in the country and right now that's the SEC. Sure, there are a fair amount of growing pains involved with the transition. Every series in SEC play is going to be a battle, whether you're playing the best team in the conference or the worst (we'll exclude Missouri since we didn't play them this year and they were indeed particularly terrible). Ultimately, though, we're going to find out here in the next few years if Rob Childress and his staff are cut out for the rigors of SEC baseball. The expectation level at A&M won't simply be to sneak into the NCAA tournament as one of the last 4 teams in. Hosting regionals and competing to earn national seeds should be the expectation given the program, facilities, conference, etc. Obviously, right now, there's work to be done on that front.
BON: You guys took two of three from a pair of national seeds, Florida and LSU, as well as a solid Vandy team. Yet the Ags also lost series to two of the four SEC teams not to make the Tournament--Georgia and an awful Auburn squad. What's with the Jekyll and Hyde act?
JZ: Honestly, I can't explain it. Inconsistency has been the story of this season, and I never really know which A&M team I should expect to show up to a series. There's the team that won 2 of 3 from LSU and Florida at home and Vanderbilt and Mississippi State on the road; I like that team a lot. Then there's the team that was swept by Fresno State and lost 2 of 3 on the road against Auburn and Georgia and at home against Kentucky. It seems like we can't get both the pitching and the hitting to both come together and be successful over one weekend. Either the bats come alive but we're let down by the pitching staff, or we hold our opponent to under 4 runs a game but can't score more than 2 ourselves. Our lack of success in opening games of weekend series has been an absolute killer this season, so that could certainly be an advantage for y'all coming into the weekend.
BON: In terms of ERA, there is a dropoff between your apparent number two starter, Daniel Mengden (3.55) and either Tyler Stubblefield (4.14) or Parker Ray (5.71). How would you handle the Aggie pitching staff if you beat Texas Friday? What about a trip through the losers' bracket?
JZ: Although Mengden looks like our number two guy in terms of ERA, he is actually the "ace" of this team. Grayson Long has been very good for large parts of this season, but Mengden is still the guy that Rob Childress trusts as the #1 starter and he's who Texas will go up against on Friday. Daniel has had his fair share of struggles in 2014 - which have been compounded by a bit of an injury - but in his last 4 starts he's allowed just 6 runs combined. If Mengden is able to pitch well again against Texas on Friday (and the offense puts it together as well), I think I'd hold back on throwing Grayson Long in the first game in the winner's bracket. I'd likely go with either Parker or Corey Ray - or even Tyler Stubblefield - and roll the dice to try and steal a win there. If it doesn't work, you're pitching Long in an elimination game and then going the sort of "Johnny Fullstaff" approach from there. I don't expect that's what you'd see Rob Childress do, but that's my general thought. A trip through the losers' bracket is frightening for this pitching staff. You probably have to go with Long in the first game on Saturday, which means you're left with either Parker or Corey Ray to attempt to beat Texas (or Rice) and then the other Ray and Tyler Stubblefield/Johnny Fullstaff should you survive that. Typically, A&M has the pitching depth that wouldn't worry me about having to deal with the losers' bracket, but I can't say that's the case this season.
BON: You may not remember this, but Texas and Texas A&M used to play regularly in all sports. What's the mood among A&M fans about this first meeting between the schools in one of the big three sports since the divorce?
JZ: I have some vague recollections of the rivalry, yes, but it seems like four score and seven years ago. I'd say the mood is generally mixed, although in this case I think the overwhelming majority is excited to play this game and wants to Beat the Hell Outta t.u. Having said that, I think there is generally a split in the fan base in terms of our teams playing moving forward. There are a number of Aggies who would rather just move on and not play Texas at all - they tend to think that right now, A&M has little to gain and a lot to lose by playing the Horns. There are still a fair share of fans who loved and miss the rivalry between the 2 schools, though, and who would love to have it back. I definitely do think it's different in baseball (and any other sport, to be honest) than it is in football. My hunch is that if A&M and Texas scheduled a yearly nonconference series in baseball that very few Aggies would actually be opposed to playing it. Football tends to be a different story right now, and probably a topic for another day.
BON: How balanced is the A&M offense? Are there one or two players that can be shut down that brings everything to a halt or will the Texas pitchers find minefields all over the place? Nick Banks (.348 avg, .870 OPS) and Cole Lankford (.333 avg, .788 OPS) obviously impress, who else should we be on the lookout for?
JZ: It's actually been relatively balanced overall, although it's taken some time to get to that point. You're definitely correct in that Banks and Lankford are the 2 main players to watch for this weekend, but there are some others that can cause trouble as well. True freshman 2B/DH Ryne Birk has come on strong moving into the leadoff spot as the season has gone on, and SS Blake Allemand has actually been quite successful for a good part of SEC play as well. You'll want to watch out for 3B/DH Logan Nottebrok, who has the best pure power on the A&M roster, and ideally you'd like to keep speed demon CF Krey Bratsen from reaching base as well. Troy Stein is mostly feast or famine at the plate; the Aggies' catcher is capable of coming through with big hits or RBI, but he's just as capable (if not moreso) of killing a rally by grounding into a double play. A&M got a bit of a blow in learning that OF Jonathan Moroney is out for the postseason with a broken hand, but SS Logan Taylor is supposedly 50/50 coming into the regional after dislocating his kneecap against LSU.
BON: BONUS SIXTH QUESTION: What's your prediction for the game and regional?
JZ: I think Friday will be a very close game, but unfortunately I think the Texas pitching staff has enough of an advantage that y'all will win the opener. After that, I expect that A&M will eliminate George Mason and Rice will probably get off to a perfect start to advance to the Regional Championship. That would put the Aggies and Longhorns right back together again for an elimination game, and I'd tend to favor Texas' pitching staff, even despite losing Peters to injury. If A&M is able to take the opener from Texas on Friday, though, we could end up having a very interesting regional play out.