Stevens: Lobos' NCAA Regional Might Be The Toughest In NCAA Baseball

May 30, 2013

New Mexico Lobos Baseball - 2013 NCAA College World Series -- Cal State Fullerton Regional

Regional Format: Four-team, double-elimination tournament
Friday: 5 p.m. (MT), No. 3 seed New Mexico Lobos vs. No. 2 Arizona State Sun Devils.
Friday: 9 p.m. (MT) No. 1 seed Cal State Fullerton vs. No. 4 Columbia
On The Air: ESPN3 (TV); ESPN Radio 101.7 (FM) The Team GameTracker, Box Score, Game Recap
Saturday: Losers play at 5 p.m. (MT); Winners play at 9 p.m. (MT)

By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/

In the Lobos' quest to scratch a path to Omaha, where the final round in the College World Series is played, you can't help but look at UNM's hurdles this weekend and think the Lobos already are in Nebraska.

The field in the Cal State Fullerton Regional is loaded with Omaha-caliber teams.

You have three teams - Cal State Fullerton, New Mexico and Arizona State - ranked in Baseball America's Top 20. The Fullerton Titans are No. 6 in the NCAA RPI rankings and are the No. 5 national seed.

"We seem to get that draw, don't we?" said Lobo Coach Ray Birmingham, whose Lobos are making their fourth consecutive jump into NCAA play. "Fullerton has all the advantages. They have to be the favorite."

The talent in Fullerton, Calif., might be equaled in some other regionals, but there are no sites more jammed with blue-chip athletes.

The best hitting team in the nation is in Fullerton - New Mexico. The Lobos are No. 1 in the NCAA in average (.336), on-base percentage (.424), hits (702), doubles (146) and runs per game (8.4).

There are three 11-0 pitchers in Fullerton: UNM's Josh Walker, ASU's Ryan Kellogg and Fullerton's Justin Garza. The Titans also have 11-2 Thomas Eshelman with a 1.63 ERA and one of the nation's best arms out of the bullpen in Michael Lorenzen, who has 18 saves and a 2.05 ERA. He also hits .335. Show off!

It's obvious why the Titans are favored to defend their home turf and take another step toward Omaha. They have a team ERA of 2.56. That's ridiculous. Eshelman has 71 strikeouts and two walks. That's impossible. Does this guy ever miss his spots? Fullerton also has nine batters hitting .278 or better with seven over .300.

There is a reason the Titans have lost only eight games in 2013. There is a reason they are the nation's No. 5 national seed.

"They (Titans) are very, very good and they have very good pitching. It's a challenge," Birmingham said, evaluating Fullerton as the regional favorite. "It's a fast track and they have a fast team. They know how to play to their yard. They have a lot of guys who can run.

"They throw a lot of strikes and they play great defense."

The Titans also get to open with the No. 4 seed, Columbia, which could benefit Fullerton's pitching rotation.

The Titans have an interesting call to make on the mound in their opener with the Ivy League champion. Do they pitch Eshelman or Garza or go with their No. 3 guy, Grahamm Wiest, and give him help out of the bullpen - not that Wiest needs much help. Wiest has a decent 3.48 ERA with 72 strikeouts and only 13 walks.

The Titans simply do not give up much on the mound. For the second straight season, Fullerton leads the nation in walks allowed per nine innings - an astounding 1.49. This crew of arms also leads the NCAA in strikeouts-to-walks ratio (4.71).

If the Titans go with Wiest - and win -- that leaves their two studs available for the UNM/ASU winner and possibly the championship game. But Columbia might not be coming out West to roll over. Anyone remember the New Mexico/Harvard basketball game?

The Lobos can't afford to look past ASU, which beats UNM in the RPI ranking by 30 spots and is ranked in more national Top 25 polls. The Sun Devils are good. They are the region's No. 2 seed. UNM is No. 3. ASU has eight regulars batting .279 or better and average .296 as a team.

UNM lost 4-3 to ASU earlier in the season in Tempe, Ariz., after leading 3-1 in the eighth. The Lobos are coming off two losses to San Diego State in the Mountain West Tournament, which might have bumped UNM into a No. 3 seed.

"We're going to get back on the horse and see what we can do," said UNM's Mitch Garver.

Like New Mexico, the Sun Devils haven't always had a consistent third starter, but they have juggled their bullpen enough to produce a 35-20-1 mark. The Sun Devils have good arms. They just have to pull the right strings at the right time.

Against New Mexico, that will be key. The Lobos are ball mashers. They have six batters hitting .320 or better with DJ Peterson at .411, Garver at .387 and Luke Campbell at .382.

The Lobos (37-20) have hit 52 home runs in 57 games and ASU has 46 dingers in 56 games. A timely bomb could be huge in this contest. Peterson is the top home-run threat with 18 and has a .823 slugging percentage. You have to wonder why anyone pitches to this guy.

UNM will throw either Walker (11-0, 3.91 ERA) or Sam Wolff (7-3, 3.05 ERA) against ASU. Wolff throws harder; Walker manages the strike zone better. Birmingham said he will make that final decision after evaluating the pitching/hitting matchups.

ASU likely will go with Kellogg (3.26 ERA) or Trevor Williams, who is more of a power pitcher (77 strikeouts). Ryan Burr is the top arm out of the bullpen with 11 saves and a 2.18 ERA while holding the opposing bats to a .140 average. ASU's game plan obviously is to get to Burr with the lead.

The key for UNM and ASU on Friday is simple enough: avoid the losers' bracket which can cut deeply into a pitching staff. You don't want to have to come out of the losers' bracket and have to beat a team twice - especially Fullerton at home.

Birmingham expects his Lobos to produce runs even against the quality arms in the Fullerton Regional. But it's possible that these games won't be slugfests. Birmingham said UNM's keys are "pitching and defense; We need one pitcher to step up (and pitch like Walker and Wolff)."

"We're here. It's now," said Birmingham of the need to produce at the NCAA's top level.

Which, this weekend, might be in Fullerton, Calif.