Stevens: New Mexico Lobos Baseball 2012 Season Preview

Feb. 15, 2012


New Mexico Lobos -- In Isotopes Park
3 p.m., Nevada vs. New Mexico
Saturday: 1 p.m., Nevada vs. New Mexico
Sunday: 1 p.m., Nevada vs. New Mexico p>

By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/

The glorious ending of 2011 might not be the exact start for New Mexico baseball in 2012, but the rocky road the Lobos walked so much last season should not be repeated.

In 2011, the Lobos were young, inexperienced and handed a murderer's row road schedule. This year UNM has experience, depth, pitching and Coach Ray Birmingham is even going to let his Lobos hang around Albuquerque a bit more.

"The schedule was tough on `em last year, especially the travel," said Birmingham of his 20-41 Lobos, who rallied to win the 2011 Mountain West Tournament title and advance to NCAA play. "But they got the best experience in the country last year and they realize what you have to do to get there.

"We have veterans everywhere, which we didn't have last year. I'm very excited about this year. It could be the most special year in Lobo baseball history."

Special years take talent, focus, drive, work ethic, hitting, pitching and defense. Those seasons also can be helped along by good luck or slowed down by injury. The Lobos were banged up heading into the 2012 season and this week lost cleanup hitter, Luke Campbell, for 8-to-12 weeks -- maybe the season.

Campbell was hit in the eye by a ball that sliced off his bat and fractured an orbital bone. A few days before that injury, Birmingham said Campbell was hitting the ball "lights out" and Birmingham expected his senior to "have a fantastic year."

UNM's depth is being called upon earlier than expected. "We have enough guys," said Birmingham.

The Lobos might be without Campbell for a while, but there is a lot of talent returning off the MW tourney champions. However, the sticks that came through for UNM in San Diego last year (MW tourney site), probably will show up earlier this year.

The Lobos produced a .271 team average in 2011 with 18 home runs. In 2010, UNM batted .346 with 40 home runs. The Lobos of 2011 scored almost 200 fewer runs than that 2010 group. However, there were lessons learned in 2011.

On the field and at the plate, UNM returns DJ Peterson (.317), Mitchell Garver (.301), Kyle Stiner (.282), Ben Woodchick (.268) and Alex All Britton (.257). Peterson set an NCAA record for doubles (32) in a season by a freshman. He was named to two freshman All-American teams and is a third-team Louisville Slugger All-American pick this preseason.

These Lobo hitters were tested by some of the top arms in college baseball in 2011 and should be swinging at a higher level in 2012. Birmingham thinks so: "We are back to having the kind of offense we had in `09 when we led the country in hitting. Our offense is going to be way better."

Sometimes in baseball, you hit for show and you pitch for dough. Of course, both elements are crucial, but you don't win without pitching. Birmingham likes his 2012 staff.

"Pitching at UNM has been my biggest concern and this is the best pitching staff we've had since I've been here," said the fifth-year UNM coach.

The UNM mound crew is so solid that Rudy Jaramillo, one of the postseason heroes of 2011, might have to step up his game to become a weekend arm for the Lobos. This 2012 pitching staff is loaded.

UNM returns Jaramillo (4-8, 4.25 ERA), Austin House (1-2, 5.90), Jake McCasland (2-6, 6.34), Bobby Mares (4-4, 4.97), Alexis Garza (1-3, 5.14), and Gera Sanchez (2-3, 5.26). Birmingham also is high on transfer Sam Wolff.

"Wolff has looked good in the fall. He has a chance to pitch on the weekend," said Birmingham. "Austin House has been lights out all fall. He is possibly our Friday-night guy. If he keeps pitching like this, he can have Friday, Saturday and Sunday."

Behind the plate, the Lobos have one of the top catchers in the Mountain in Mitchell Garver. "He's good," said Birmingham. "He can throw. He can hit. He has what it takes to call a game. He can be that psychologist, that motivator for the pitching staff."

The Lobos' schedule isn't as nasty as it was a year ago, but there will be some front-line challenges including Arizona State, Oklahoma, Gonzaga and TCU of the Mountain. "We've already been through the junkyard and now we are a junkyard dog," said Birmingham. "The schedule is going to be tough, but we`ll be at home a lot more and that helps."

Said Stiner: "We learned a lot last year."

The TCU Horned Frogs again are expected to be one of the top teams in the nation and are the preseason pick to win the MW. Birmingham understands that pick. "TCU is still the big, bad boy. They'll be the team to beat," said Birmingham, whose Lobos were picked to finish third behind UNLV.

"We're going to scratch and claw and work our butts off. We'll go out and play Lobo baseball and see what happens"