Stevens: Mountain West Baseball -- Coaches, Start Your Plotting

May 21, 2013

Complete MW Championship Bracket

New Mexico Lobos Baseball -The Mountain West Tournament - Fresno, Calif.

Wednesday -- Pete Beiden Field
Game One:
3 p.m. (PT), No. 3 San Diego State vs. No. 6 Air Force
Game Two: 7 p.m. (PT), No. 4 Fresno State vs. No. 5 Nevada
Thursday --- Pete Beiden Field
Game Three:
11 a.m. (PT), Game One loser vs. Game Two loser
Game Four: 3 p.m. (PT), No. 2 UNLV vs. highest winning seed of Games One/Two
Game Five: 7 p.m. (PT), No. 1 New Mexico vs. lowest winning seed of Game One/Two GameTracker, box score, postgame recap, stats

By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/

They want what the New Mexico Lobos already have - a spot in the NCAA postseason. Which brings up the obvious: the NCAA wannabe teams of the Mountain West Conference have to bring the New Mexico Lobos down.

There is really only one way any Mountain West team not named New Mexico can advance to the NCAA playoffs and that's to grab the Mountain West Tournament title away from the Lobo team that scorched its way through the MW regular season in record-breaking fashion.

The target on the Lobos' back gets bigger this week in Fresno, Calif. The only way two MW teams will dance in postseason play is if someone can out-pitch New Mexico to the tourney title.

It might be impossible to out-hit these Lobos, who have won 18 of their past 20 games.

It was obvious long before the MW regular season ended that Ray Birmingham's Lobos were going to grab that title. They were too good, too motivated and once the pitching took it up a level - well, there was no need to wait for some large lady to sing. It was over -- early.

The tournament format gives the wannabe teams of the MW a better chance to knock off the Lobos - but not much better. The Lobos raced to the 2013 title with a balanced performance at the plate and on the mound.

The Lobos were super in the batter's box. They were solid and competent on the hill. They set a Mountain West record with 25 league wins and won the MW by the largest margin (seven games) in league history.

It was a Lobo beat down.

But things - and strategy - change in a double-elimination tournament. In a three-game series during regular-season play, a coach has to try and stretch his pitching over, say, 27 innings. In a tourney format, you have to plan ahead, too - but you have to win the game in front of you. The first nine innings can be crucial. You don't want to drop into the losers' bracket.

If there are no upsets in Round One of the MW tourney on Wednesday, then San Diego State will advance to play UNLV and Fresno State will advance to play the Lobos. The Lobos and the Rebels got an all-important first-round bye.

Already, the Bulldogs - who have won 11 of 13 on Pete Beiden Field -- have been setting up their pitching rotation for the tournament - and for the Lobos.

The Bulldogs' path to New Mexico is through Nevada. You lose to Nevada, you might not ever see the Lobos - or the MW automatic bid. The Nevada game is critical for Fresno; critical for Nevada.

Fresno State is favored. The `Dogs are coming off a three-game sweep of the Wolf Pack and the way the games played out allowed Fresno to massage its pitching staff into a good situation. But do they really have the arms to shut down the UNM bats?

The Fresno pitching crew is deep and solid behind Blake Quinn (2.64 ERA), Jordan Brink (4.07), Jake Shull (4.00), Tim Borst (4.15) and Derick Velazquez (4.69).

The Bulldogs used Tyler Linehan and Brink to get past Nevada 2-1 in the first game of that series. They used Velazquez in Game Two and were able to pull him - and save him - after three innings behind an 8-1 lead. They used Shull in the third game and pulled him with a 3-0 lead after four.

The Fresno arms are fresh. The Bulldogs are playing at home. They need to push UNM into the losers' bracket and hope the Lobos never come out of it. The two games they lost in that 13-game span were to New Mexico.

It is an interesting twist for the Lobos, too. When TCU went into the MW tournament, the Horned Frogs often "saved" arms for the NCAA wars for two reasons: 1- The Frogs already had an at-large bid wrapped up and didn't need to win the MW tourney. 2- The Frogs were good enough to win the MW tourney while saving their arms.

There might have been a third reason, too: The Frogs were much more interested in how they did in the NCAA wars.

Are the Lobos in the same position? It's difficult to envision any scenario in which the Lobos don't get at at-large bid. And Birmingham's ball mashers probably are good enough to win this tournament no matter how Birmingham plans to use (or save) his arms. It's also time for UNM to make some noise on the postseason level.

But how will Fresno and the rest of the MW teams plan their attack of Lobos? Let's say the SDSU Aztecs advance to play UNM in the MW semifinals. The Aztecs will be three games into their pitching staff at that point and throwing at one of the best hitting teams in the nation. UNLV can't afford to save any arms vs. SDSU and plan ahead for Lobos.

If Fresno State meets UNM on Thursday, will the Bulldogs have saved Quinn to face UNM? Quinn and Velazquez lost to UNM in Fresno two weeks back. The Bulldogs might need a Quinn/Velazquez/Shull/Borst/Brink combo to cool these smoldering Lobo bats.

It's nice to see how the world of MW baseball has changed. The NCAA wannabe teams of the Mountain West used to be thinking about TCU when they were doing all this plotting.

And, hey, maybe Air Force will upset San Diego State???