Pepperdine ready for clean slate

Omaha, Neb., might as well have been in Japan for Pepperdine last season.

It felt that far away for coach Steve Rodriguez and the Waves.

That was a surprise, too.

Before the season began, the Waves were in the College World Series discussion with teams like Texas, LSU and Cal State Fullerton. At the end of the season, the Waves were at home with not even a regional berth wondering what in the world happened.

They weren’t alone.

Pepperdine entered the campaign with a favorable schedule and got off to a solid start. Things fell apart one week in late March. The Waves began the week with a shocking 20-8 loss to lowly Brown. They dropped another midweek game to UCLA before hitting the road to take on WCC foe San Diego. That series ended with a Toreros sweep.

It was then Rodriguez realized his team was in trouble – and the coaches weren’t able to pinpoint all the problems.

Photo Cole Cook and the Waves hope to rebound from a tough ’09 campaign.

“The biggest expectation I had entering the season was that I thought we’d be much more consistent with the amount of talent and type of guys we had coming back in terms of leadership,” Rodriguez said. “I was looking for some of our guys, who didn’t get drafted this previous summer, to enter the spring with a little fire in their bellies.”

“That didn’t happen. For whatever reason, it didn’t.”

It didn’t take long for frustration to set in. That led to even more inconsistency and team chemistry issues.

Everything that could’ve gone wrong did.

“When you’re playing well it’s easy to keep good team chemistry. But when a majority of your guys aren’t playing well, it’s really easy to not have good chemistry,” Rodriguez said. “I think we tried to keep things together the best we could. But when you have veterans start to get frustrated and you have newcomers that look up to them for guidance. That causes a ripple effect and they react. I can say that chemistry wasn’t very good at the end of the season.”

Six months after the most disappointing campaign this decade, the Waves have a new outlook. There are some players who didn’t gel with other players that no longer are with the program. There is a strong group of veterans mixed with a solid crop of newcomers.

Perhaps the Waves won’t be as talented as they were last season. But the team could be much better.

“Talent-wise, I’m not sure what to think just yet, but this is a really fun group to watch and be a part of,” Rodriguez said. “Team chemistry has been great and everyone in our meetings seem to be excited about the fact everyone is gelling. It’s really different than last year’s team. Everyone seems to like each other.”

The Waves welcome back a plethora of seasoned players. At the plate, Trent Diedrich, Ryan Heroy, Brian Humphries and Colin Rooney give the Waves a strong nucleus of hitters. On the mound, the Waves have some depth issues, but still return some talented arms in Cole Cook, Robert Dickmann, Aaron Gates and Matt Bywater.

The Waves welcomed 14 new players to the program this fall. Pitchers Alex Najera and Danny Patrick had strong falls. At the plate, Harrison Kain, Joe Sever and Zach Vincej gave the coaches something to smile about.

Pepperdine is also breaking in a new pitching coach in Jon Strauss. Strauss comes way of Long Beach State, where he spent several seasons with long-time Dirtbags coach Mike Weathers. Strauss replaces Sean Kenny, who surprised everyone when he decided to leave Malibu, Calif., for a post on Erik Bakich’s Maryland staff.

Losing Kenny to the Terrapins was a tough pill to swallow for Rodriguez and the Waves. But perhaps there’s a silver lining in his departure.

“I think Jon has been a great addition simply because it gives some players a new look and feel. I think change sometimes is good because of that,” he said. “As frustrating as it was to lose Sean, sometimes a different philosophy and intensity makes the pitchers want to go out there and impress the new guy.”

Though the Waves had a strong fall and enjoyed the addition of Strauss and a crop of newcomers, the proof of their improvements will be out on the field for everyone to see in a few months.

Rodriguez isn’t making his flight reservations for Omaha just yet. But perhaps Rosenblatt Stadium won’t again feel like the Tokyo Dome in 2010.

It’s the beginning of a new road.

Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Yahoo! Sports and Follow him on Twitter and follow Yahoo! Sports College Baseball on Facebook. Send Kendall a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Nov 19, 2009