May 30, 2012
Peterson In Golden Spikes Semifinals
New Mexico Lobos Baseball - NCAA Regional - Los Angeles
Who: New Mexico Lobos vs. San Diego Toreros
When/Where: Friday, 4 p.m., Jackie Robinson Stadium
On The Air: ESPN 101.7-FM The Team, Scott Galetti (play-by-play)
GoLobos.com: GameTracker, Game Story, Stats, Live Streaming
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
It's obvious that the brightest light at the end of Ray Birmingham's tunnel of achievement for his Lobo baseball team originates and beckons from Omaha, Neb., the site of the College Baseball World Series.
Birmingham and his Lobos begin scratching at that dream and that road at 4 p.m., Friday against the San Diego Toreros. UNM is in a mean, mother bear of a regional that features Top 25 San Diego and UCLA, the NCAA bracket's No. 2 seed out of 64 invites.
But for a lot of Lobo baseball fans, the light of success that halos Birmingham's 2012 Lobos already is a light mixed with accomplishment, pride and maybe even a little gloating.
Quite possibly, this is the best Lobo baseball team ever and much of the glory of this season came at the expense of arguably the best college baseball program in Texas - TCU, the perennial bully on the Mountain West block.
It's impossible not to look at the Lobos final season of playing against TCU in the Mountain West without feeling a strong surge of pride and satisfaction in how it ended. Birmingham's program had been shadowing TCU for four seasons and this season it was finally Horned Frogs who were looking up from the shade at Lobos.
The Lobos were the Mountain West Tournament champions. The Lobos knocked TCU into the losers' bracket of that four-team diamond race. The Lobos grabbed the league's NCAA automatic bid while TCU tumbled out of the tourney as the third-place team. The Frogs lost to the San Diego State team that UNM pounded by 19 runs in the championship game.
This was a huge statement in how to finish and the tourney title washed away any aftertaste of that kiss-my-sister tie with TCU for the Mountain's regular-season title.
If you are unfamiliar with Birmingham's passion, drive and work ethic, you might think the turnaround in the New Mexico baseball program is a shocker. If you know Ray at all, you aren't surprised by this season.
Well, maybe a little bit surprised.
What the Lobos have done this season might go beyond impressive. They grabbed their first regular-season title in 12 years. They won back-to-back MW tournaments. They have won 30 games in four of the past five seasons. They are No. 4 in the nation in batting average and ride a nine-game winning streak in which they have outscored the other guys 115-39.
Better yet, they have the team's lowest ERA in 35 years. This is critical because Birmingham's Lobos have been hitters almost from the get-go. You can't discount the importance of scoring runs in the NCAA postseason, but you don't advance very far without arms.
The individual honors that have come to New Mexico are equally impressive and long.
You start with DJ Peterson and Mitchell Garver as Co-Players of The Year in the Mountain. Peterson leads the nation in total bases and Garver leads collegiate catchers in hits, average, runs and total bases. Peterson was the third MW player to win the league's Triple Crown: .422 average, 14 home runs, 68 RBIs.
You obviously have to slap "star" stickers on the helmets of Peterson and Garver, but you don't win league titles without a brilliant supporting cast. New Mexico had 11 Lobos receive All-Conference honors and five Lobos were placed on the MW All-Tournament team with Josh Melendez grabbing MVP honors.
The Lobos aren't favored to advance out of the UCLA Region. The light beckoning Lobos from faraway Omaha is supposed to be doused by better teams.
Kind of like what TCU was supposed to do to the Lobos this season.
New Mexico rides into the 2012 postseason race as underdogs and a nation of diamond watchers will be surprised if the Lobos survive L.A., especially with UCLA playing on its home field.
And, sure, it will be tough. But these Lobo underdogs are confident, deep, hot, and playing baseball the right way - the Birmingham way.
Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former award-winning Sports Columnist and Associate Sports Editor at The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.