Stevens: Lobos Climb Back Into Top 25 Came With Some Adjustments

April 25, 2013

New Mexico Lobos baseball - at Lobo Field

By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com

They're back. Ray Birmingham's University of New Mexico Lobos are back in the Top 25, atop the Mountain West and playing like a team that wants to dance in the postseason.

So, why are they back? And why did they fade? Birmingham has a few theories. In a nutshell, there was a shift in attitude, in pitching, in defense. The hitting has pretty much been solid all year.

The Attitude:

"We were ranked in the Top 25 for the first time ever to start the season and there was a lot of hype about the players on the team," said Birmingham. "It was new territory and guys all of a sudden were acting different. We did not handle the attention well.

"It went to their heads. We lost that blue-collar, scratch-and-claw, Lobo mentality. We got caught up in a lot of stuff off the field. We weren't playing the game right. We had to talk."

So, Birmingham talked. The Lobos listened. He emphasized the foundation values that helped put New Mexico on the college baseball map. Birmingham likes fundamental baseball. You throw strikes. You play catch on the field. You manufacture runs with smart, unselfish hitting. You play your butt off until the large lady sings.

"We got back to doing those things," said Birmingham. "It makes a difference. We had too many guys playing draft baseball."

Of course, there was more. The puzzling of the Lobo pieces that returned UNM to the Top 25 was more than simply a Ray Birmingham butt chewing.

The Defense

It helps if you can play where you practice. The Lobos had access to one of the top Triple-A facilities in America in Isotopes Park, but the pro boys were a little stingy with practice time on their gem.

So, the Lobos practiced at Lobo Field and marched over to Isotopes Park for the games. It was a system that wasn't working especially on defense.

Oh, the Lobos smacked the ball around over at Isotopes Park about like they do at Lobo Field. But there was no true home-field advantage and the sweet bounces on the turf at Lobo Field were not the same across the street.

So, the Lobos started playing games at Lobo Field. It made a difference. But so did some juggling of positions in the infield.

Alex Allbritton is one of the best shortstops in college ball. He is now at third base. He bit the bullet and made the move to the hot corner which allowed Jared Holley to slip into the shortstop position.

Holley is a bit quicker than Allbritton and covers more territory. Holley is better at short than third and Allbritton has a gun out of the hot corner. The move made UNM better on the left side.

They got better on the right side, too, which was huge. UNM had too many early-season errors on the right side. Sam Haggerty is solid at second now that he is playing on the turf he practices on. DJ Peterson also bit the bullet and went to first. Peterson might go pro as a third baseman, but he also can play first.

"Our pitching wasn't good enough early to overcome errors and we were making errors," said Birmingham. "We knew we would score runs. We needed to get better on the mound and we needed our defense not to cause problems. But the big deal was probably playing at Lobo Field."

The Pitching

The Lobos took a few hits on the mound losing Bobby Mares and Josh Spencer before the season began. That put more pressure on some arms to produce early and produce at a high level. There were some bumps in the road.

Those bumps haven't exactly been smoothed out, but Birmingham and his pitching coach, Dan Spencer, have been doing a good job in piecing together this inconsistent mound puzzle.

"There is some guesswork there. There truly is," said Birmingham referring to finding the right arms at the right time. "It can be confusing. Dan does a really good job working the staff and saving his best bullets for the end.

"But we still have some guys we're counting on and it's time they came around."

Birmingham is quick to throw some heat at several UNM arms. "I'm not beating them up," he said. "But two guys who need to step up for us are Jake McCasland and Will Mathis. We also need quality strikes from Alex Estrella, A.J. Carman and Kevin Baumgartner.

"Thank goodness that Drew Bridges showed up and that Sam Wolff is pitching better every time out. Gabe Aguilar, Hobie McClain, Jonathan Cuellar, Taylor Duree and Josh Walker are pitching pretty good and Victor Sanchez keeps improving. Our bullpen (relievers) is pretty good. But we need quality strikes from everybody at this point of the season.

"We can pound the ball and offense will win you some games, but this isn't slow-pitch softball. Our pitching will be the difference down the stretch."

The Hitting & The Stretch

The Lobos are still one of the Murderers' Row of college ball. They slam it. The Lobos have eight hitters above .310. "We are swinging it; really, really swinging it," said Birmingham.

You only have to go back one game to illustrate what the Lobos can do to you at the plate. UNM scored eight runs in the ninth inning to beat Nevada 15-11.

But Birmingham makes a telling point: "We gave up 11 runs."

Yeah, you don't want to do that and you don't want to go into the ninth inning down three runs (Nevada scored one in the ninth). You can't always count on those rallies especially in the postseason when pitching goes to another level.

Still, this is a lineup that can hurt you.

Chase Harris is leading off hitting .316 with a .379 on-base percentage. He has speed on the base paths. Sam Haggerty is in the No. 2 spot and can move the ball around. He hits .284 with a .422 on-base percentage. That usually brings up DJ Peterson with some Lobos on the bases. Peterson hammers the ball at a .400 clip and has a slugging percentage of .821.

Nobody wants to pitch to Peterson, but with Mitch Garver in the No. 4 hole with a .374 average, Peterson sees some pitches. Alex Real, at .342, protects Garver, who has 37 RBIs.

Birmingham could do almost anything with his lineup after that. The bottom of the order often is reserved for defensive players with light sticks. UNM is full of heavy hitters. Luke Campbell is hitting .339, Allbritton is at .333 (.414 in MW games) and Josh Melendez is at .329. Ryan Padilla is at .262 with a .384 on-base average.

There are obvious numbers on this Lobo team that grab you. UNM mashes the ball. UNM hits .325 as a team and has an impressive .416 on-base percentage. UNM is No. 2 in the nation in slugging and No. 3 in average.

The pitching staff combines for a 4.98 ERA with only one arm (Taylor Duree) with an ERA under .325. The mound work could be better, more consistent.

The Lobos top the Mountain West standing at 14-4 with second-place UNLV coming to Lobo Field Friday, Saturday and Sunday with an 11-7 league mark. The Lobos obviously can increase the gap between them and the rest of the Mountain.

The series with UNLV is important. The Lobos finish the MW race with three games at Fresno State and three games at San Diego State. The Mountain West Tournament will be at Fresno State from May 22 to May 26.

"In the Mountain West, the only true window to a regional is the Mountain West Tournament," said Birmingham of the automatic bid that goes to the tourney champion. "That's it. That's the only thing you can count on."