Stevens: Ryan Padilla Goes From Humble Fall To One of NCAA's Top Freshmen Hitters

May 8, 2012

New Mexico Lobos Baseball - On The Mountain West Road

Who/Where: Lobos at UNLV Rebels - Las Vegas
When: Friday (7:05 p.m. MT), Saturday (3:05 p.m.), Sunday (2:05 p.m.) GameTracker, Game Recap, Box Score

By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/

For Ryan Padilla, his fall-season start as a Lobo was a humbling experience. He wasn't hitting.

He also was receiving more than his fair share of "tough love" from Coach Ray Birmingham, who saw a lot of dormant potential that needed a spark and a better swing.

And it looked like the promising freshman from Albuquerque La Cueva High would be sitting close to Birmingham most of the 2012 season instead of locking down a spot in the New Mexico lineup.

Then things changed.

"He got some tough love. I smoked him early," said the fiery Lobo coach. "But he bought in."

To "buy in" to Birmingham's coaching seems like an obvious - and smart - thing to do. But not all 17 or 18-year-olds realize that maybe a coach with Birmingham's resume and experience might know a bit more about baseball than they do.

And a swing is a tough thing to change. You have to change muscle memory, a mindset, and usually the stubbornness that comes with changing something that used to work - at a lower level.

Padilla wasn't one of those misguided youths. He listened. He made the changes.

That's one reason he has 164 at-bats as a Lobo starter and is No. 3 on the team with a .360 batting average - one of the top averages in the nation among NCAA freshmen. Yes, Padilla is on the path to become a Freshman All-America.

"He had a lot of flaws like all high school kids have," said Birmingham. "You can get away with them in high school, but you can't get away with them at this level.

"He had a little success in the fall early, but then he didn't have any once they figured out how to pitch to him. Then he bought in. He made the changes. The kids who don't buy in, don't hit."

His humbling start as a Lobo also was marked by frustration. The four-time All-State La Cueva Bear was not pounding the ball as often - or as far - as he did at the prep level. The Birmingham bench was beckoning.

"I didn't even think I would be playing this year," said Padilla. "I didn't have the best fall. I couldn't hit in the fall. The transition from high school pitching to college pitching was overwhelming.

There are things you can get away with in high school that you can't get away with in college. It was frustrating, but I had such great support from my teammates, who were working with me, giving me tips."

It's impossible not to call Padilla one of the better hitters on the UNM team. He is No. 3 on the stat charts. But the Lobos also have two of the top hitters in the nation in DJ Peterson (.425) and Mitchell Garver (.371).

Padilla watched and learned. Padilla listened and learned. He bought in.

"I think hitting is probably the hardest thing to do in baseball. It's not easy," said Padilla. "In the Major Leagues, if you can get three hits in every ten at-bats, you are doing really well."

The 6-foot-4 Padilla was a standout at La Cueva both at the plate and on the rubber, but he came to UNM to swing the bat.

"A lot of coaches and scouts like that I was a tall and left-handed pitcher," said Padilla. "And Randy Johnson was my idol as a little kid. But I love hitting more than anything and I want to hit and play every day."

Padilla also discovered something else early. He wanted to be a Lobo.

"I knew Coach B and knew what a good coach he is and I wanted to play in front of my family," said Padilla. "But I also wanted to show people that New Mexico kids can play with kids from the other states. I think we have just as much talent."