Stevens: Lobos Looking to Mash Their Way to Omaha in 2013

Feb. 11, 2013

NEW MEXICO LOBOS BASEBALL – 2013 SEASON PREVIEW

Friday: 5 p.m., Oklahoma State at New Mexico Lobos
Saturday: 2 p.m., Oklahoma State at New Mexico
Sunday: 1 p.m., Oklahoma State at New Mexico

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By Richard Stevens – Senior Writer/GoLobos.com

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - In massaging out a budget for 2013, Lobo Coach Ray Birmingham probably was tempted to toss a few extra bucks into a certain line item: baseballs.

His Lobos surely will knock the cover off more than a few baseballs this season. These guys are mashers. They put a serious hurt on the leather.

But Coach B also might need a few extra baseballs in the bullpen. He has a host of strong-armed hurlers hitting the 90 mph range, but those Lobo arms might lose a few balls in the distant mesa – well, at least until they zoom in on the strike zone.

Again, the mound is the key to the Lobos’ season and part of that key is how quickly the New Mexico pitching staff embraces the strike zone and the fine art of D-I pitching.

“We can hit,” said Birmingham. “That’s not even an issue. The pitching will be a big difference for us this year.  Our pitching has a chance to be really good or who know?”

Birmingham is being honest and fair in assessing his pitching.  He lost the heart of the pitching staff from 2012 that helped the Lobos win the Mountain West regular-season and tournament titles – a first in UNM history.  That group also aided UNM in pushing into postseason for the third straight time – another program first.

It’s not that Birmingham has a shortage of talented arms in his bullpen. He is loaded and if these arms live up to their potential, this pitching staff might be better than 2012.  But there are question marks that form Birmingham’s “who knows?”  There is only one Lobo returning who won more than two games in 2012 – Josh Walker, who was 8-3 last season. UNM lost 21 wins in Austin House, Gera Sanchez and Rudy Jaramillo.

A lot of new Lobos have some proving to do.   Birmingham is wise enough to know you have to wait and see what happens. He also is experienced enough to know good arms when he sees them.

“Our pitching staff has more arms, more arm strength, more pitches than ever in the history of this school,” said Birmingham. “But we have to figure a few things out and some of these guys have to figure things out upstairs (mentally).  The guys with division-one experience are few.

“I think one of the biggest changes is we have a very, very high caliber pitching coach in Dan Spencer.  We have someone riding the hitters at the same level I’m riding the hitters and that’s huge.”

Spencer has experience both in teaching the game and in recruiting the game.  He spent the past four seasons as the Texas Tech head man.  He spent 11 seasons at Oregon State and helped the Beavers to back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007.

Spencer inherits a Lobo bullpen bulging with talent, but needing to get its act in order upstairs. And several of these Lobo arms need some D-I exposure. The top returners statistically are Hobie McClain (1.80 ERA), Alex Estrella (2.89), Sam Wolff (5.52) and Walker (8-3, 4.19). Jake McCasland, a two-year letterman, is recovering from elbow surgery and could be throwing in April.

But Spencer has to get some juice, strikes, innings out of more than a few first-year (freshmen/transfers) Lobos including Drew Bridges, A.J. Carman, Tyler Spencer, Kevin Baumgartner, Tyler Rowe, Victor Sanchez, Anthony Consiglio, Taylor Duree and Jonathan Cuellar.

Heck, Spencer should be putting in for overtime with all the arms Birmingham is stuffing into the New Mexico bullpen.

“Our pitching staff is better than I’ve ever seen here,” said Birmingham. “We have a ton of guys who can pitch. But we haven’t found our Friday Night guy yet.  We need that one big arm to step up.”

When it comes to stepping up to the plate, the Lobos are loaded there, too. However,  this is D-I proven stuff.

The Lobos were the almost-unanimous pick to grab the 2013 Mountain title ahead of San Diego State.  They have that MW target on their backs and these Lobos also are getting national attention.  They were picked No. 21 in the Baseball America preseason poll.

“It’s somewhat of an honor, but at this point it really means nothing,” said senior Alex Allbritton of the early rankings. “We have to go out on the field and prove ourselves.”

Said DJ Peterson of the ranking: “It’s a big deal. It’s a big deal to New Mexico. It’s a big deal to the coaching staff. It’s always cool to be ranked and see all that stuff in the paper, but, 21 …  I think we should be ranked a little higher. I think we should be Top Ten.”

Ah, the Lobo swagger!

The Lobos return six starters from last year’s 37-24 team including the obvious headliners in Mitch Garver and Peterson, the 2012 Co-Mountain West Players of The Year. These two Lobos have been blanketed by preseason All-American accolades. Peterson hit .419 last year and Garver pounded the ball at a .377 clip.

“We have a target on our backs from the last two years,” said Peterson. “I think every team in the Mountain West is going to bring a little extra edge (at us).”

The Lobos also return preseason All-American Ryan Padilla (.353 avg.) and three-year starter, All-MW shortstop, Allbritton.  Alex Real, a sophomore who had a MW record seven RBI in the 2012 title game, returns looking to pad his .271 batting average of 2012. Outfielder Josh Melendez, MVP of the MW Tournament last season, returns with his .347 batting average from last season.

"I think it’s going to be a really strong team," said Allbritton. “This is as good as talent that we’ve ever had. We have a lot of good bats in our lineup. We can put up a lot of runs.”

Senior outfield Luke Campbell missed the 2012 season where he was expected to be the team’s cleanup man, but he’s back.

“Luke might be the best hitter on the team,” said Birmingham. “We’ll see.”

The Lobos also have John Pustay as a designated hitter and outfielder.

Birmingham is so loaded behind the plate that he can afford to push Garver to first base and alternate those positions between Garver and Real.

“Alex has a chance to be as good behind the plate as Garver,” said Birmingham. “Alex will be an All-American before he leaves here.”

Birmingham’s infield has freshman Sam Haggerty at second, Allbritton at short and Peterson at third base.  The outfield goes Padilla (left), Melendez (center) and transfer Chase Harris (right). Harris, a speedster, played at College of Southern Idaho and was the Region 18 Player of The Year. Campbell and Pustay (.291 avg. in 2012) will get time in the outfield and also at the plate in the DH role.

If the Lobos’ opposition has an ace on its staff, they might want to throw him against these bombers.  Well, unless you think his confidence might be shattered.

“We have a target on our backs from the last two years,” said Peterson. “I think every team in the Mountain West is going to bring a little extra edge (at us).  We’re going to come after everyone.  We’re not scared of anyone.”

Simply put, the Lobos have proven hitting, talented but unproven arms, solid defense – and a Ray Birmingham swagger.  They expect to win.

“We sent TCU out of the conference as the number two dog,” said Birmingham. “Now we are the team to beat.  I’ve told the team that everyone who plays them will be bringing their 'A' game.

“Our sights are the same this year.  We want to win our conference. Winning your conference is really, really cool. But we are looking to get into the final eight and that means Omaha (and the College World Series).

“This is a huge window in time for Lobo baseball because this is an Omaha-type team.  If this team figures it out, we could make a run at it. Everybody is pushing the rock in the same direction, but you have to pitch to get to Omaha.”

Editor’s Note: Richard Stevens is a former award-winning Sports Columnist and Associate Sports Editor at The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at rstevens50@comcast.net.