Lobos Rise Up the Rankings

May 1, 2012

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M – The rest of the NCAA better watch out because these Lobos can hit.

And pitch.

And run.

And field.

The University of New Mexico baseball team is playing its finest baseball of the season and the nation is beginning to take notice. This week the Lobos received votes in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches’ poll for the first time since the preseason.

“That’s nice and everything, but we want to get to Omaha,” UNM head coach Ray Birmingham said in reference to the site of the College World Series. “The only team that gets to brag is the No. 1 team at the end, and that’s where we want to be.”

The Lobos are a hot-hitting team, and rank seventh in the nation in batting with a .318 average. They are led by sophomore DJ Peterson, who ranks third in the NCAA with a .437 average and is tied for the national lead in hits with 80, and junior Mitchell Garver, who is batting .380 and is tied for fifth nationally with 73 hits.

But it doesn’t end with those two. Freshman Ryan Padilla is hitting .364, which ranks fourth among freshmen in the NCAA. Seniors Ben Woodchick and Trey Porras both are currently well above their career-highs, with Woodchick at .335 and Porras at .312. Lastly, junior college transfers Josh Melendez and John Pustay are enjoying their first season of major college ball with .331 and .307 averages respectively.

It truly is a total team effort. The hit totals from the Lobos’ past 12 games speak for themselves: 12, 14, 14, 19, 15, 8, 16, 12, 13, 12, 10, and 12. That averages out to over 13 hits per game, and, not surprisingly, the Lobos have a 10-2 record over that time.

Peterson also leads the nation in total bases with 140 and is second in RBI with 57. Garver ranks 10th in total bases with 117 and is tied for fifth with 20 doubles.

As a team, the Lobos also rank near the top of other offensive categories. They lead the NCAA in hits with 518, and they rank fourth in triples with 25, eighth in runs with 332, 11th in runs per game with 7.4, and 12th in slugging percentage at .463.

Meanwhile, Melendez leads the Mountain West in steals by a wide margin. He has 19, which is eight more than any other player. And in their 9-1 victory over UNLV on Sunday, Apr. 29, the Lobos set a new season-high with five stolen bases.

But it hasn’t just been about hitting this year for the Lobos. Their staff ERA currently sits at 4.57, which would be the lowest staff ERA since the 1977 team posted a 4.13 mark. They are also on pace to strike out the second-most batters in a single season in UNM history, behind only the 469 the 1968 team punched out.

“That is a tribute to (pitching coach) Dave Martinez,” Birmingham said. “The pitching has been a difference maker.”

It absolutely has. The Lobos lead the MW with a 12-3 conference record, and, as important as their hitting has been, they would not be in first place if not for the excellent work of their pitchers.

In conference games, the Lobos have a 3.77 ERA, second in the conference behind only TCU, who has allowed just one fewer earned run in one fewer innings pitched.

The staff is anchored by three New Mexico-native starters: junior Austin House, sophomore Josh Walker, and senior Gera Sanchez.

Sanchez, the team’s closer to begin the year, has been outright dominant at times. He is third nationally in K/9 with 12.31, while his 1.63 ERA ranks 19th, and he has limited opponents to a .200 batting average.

House is the workhorse of the staff. He leads the MW with 75.2 innings pitched, and his 65 strikeouts rank second in the conference to Sanchez’ 68. His 2.74 ERA is currently a career-best.

Not to be outdone, Walker has been brilliant as well. He has issued only nine walks in 57.1 innings, and is tied with Sanchez and TCU’s Preston Morrison for the MW lead in wins with six. Combined, the trio of starters has allowed only 30 doubles in over 180 innings this season.

The Lobos have also received excellent work out of their bullpen, with junior Hobie McClain leading the way with a 2.45 ERA and two saves in 13 relief appearances.

Part of the reason for the team's low ERA is due to the excellent defense UNM has played this season. The Lobos lead the MW with a .968 fielding percentage. Garver and Porras rank fourth and fifth in the conference in fielding percentage with .991 and .990 marks respectively.

Garver has managed to put up some gaudy numbers despite playing four different positions: all three outfield spots and catcher. Behind the plate he has thrown out an impressive 36 percent of base stealers.

The reason the staff has allowed so few doubles is partially thanks to the work of Melendez in center field. He has made only one error all season and made numerous running catches that slower, less adept fielders would not have been able to get to.

It all adds up to the makings of a fantastic season for UNM. After winning the conference tournament last season and making their second-straight postseason appearance, the Lobos want to sweep the regular season and conference tournament this year. The Lobos haven’t won a regular season championship since 2000, and a third-consecutive trip to the postseason would set a new school record.

The team has won a school-record eight-straight weekend series and is putting the rest of the NCAA on alert.

These Lobos can play.