Stevens: Coach Birmingham sees competitive fire -- and depth -- in his 2011-12 Lobos
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics  
Release:  10/26/2011
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics

Oct. 26, 2011

By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com

It's probably fair to say that when Ray Birmingham used to look for depth on his Lobo baseball team, he had to look left and right, left and right again, and probably over his shoulder a few times.

And then he probably shook his head and muttered to himself.

But not anymore.

As much as anything, what has impressed this dynamic Lobo coach as fall practice comes to a close this week is the depth of his 2011-12 Lobos. The young pups who stumbled in the regular season of 2011, but roared to the Mountain West Tournament title and into the NCAA playoffs have grown a few teeth.

They also remember.

They remember that they didn't like the taste of a season that saw them squander away too many opportunities that turned wins into losses. They remember the sweet taste of kicking butt in the MWC tournament by throwing out a team that was clutch on the mound and clutch at the plate.

"For the first time, I can say we are two deep at every position with quality athletes," said Birmingham, who has twice massaged his young program into NCAA postseason. "We also are showing more depth on the pitching staff. We have quality in numbers. You need that for a long season.

"I can honestly say that this is the best fall we've had since I've been here."

One reason Birmingham was impressed with his fall camp comes back to his statement about quality. There were a lot of talented Lobos pushing a lot of talented Lobos.

When Birmingham divided his Lobos this week into Cherry and Silver squads for a three-game series to highlight fall ball, he put out two talented teams. The edge in the series went to the Silver squad - but just barely.

The deciding game was played Wednesday morning and it was a thriller. Birmingham should have charged admission.

There was a two-run homer by DJ Peterson that put the Cherry up 4-3 going into the bottom of the sixth.

There was a five-inning, no-hitter thrown by Austin House, a 6-foot-4 righty, who could develop into one of the top pitchers in the Mountain West.

There was a dramatic sixth-inning rally by the Silver in which some simple, fundamental baseball produced the Silvers' 5-4 win.

The Cherry team also threw out a rally. It was Peterson's first-pitch homer over the left field fence that put the Cherry up 4-3 in the sixth. That rally came after House was pulled off the Silver's mound after five innings of no-hit ball.

The Silver iced the win in the sixth when Jake Nelson walked and Cory Slater doubled to place runners on second and third. The Cherry decided to walk Trey Porras, but that strategy backfired when the next Silver batter, Chris Nunez, got on base on catcher's interference. That tied the game at 4-all, with the bases still loaded.

Michael Baca then executed a simple, fundamental play that wins ball games. He drove a grounder to the right side scoring Slater from third. That win handed the fall title to the Silver squad, but Birmingham will play two more games at Lobo Field to dip deeper into his roster and further evaluate his 2011-12 Lobos.

"I liked what I saw all fall," said Birmingham. "These guys went at each other with the competitive fire and intensity you want to see. It was almost like regional play. They played the games like they meant something and what it means is I have a lot of Lobos who don't like to lose."

The schedule Birmingham threw at his Lobos last season looked like it was too much for his young Lobos to handle - until it counted the most. UNM, the worst seed in the tourney, threw out an unbelievable four-game run in San Diego to grab the MWC tourney title and the automatic bid to NCAA play.

"We are building some tradition over here," said Birmingham. "But tradition starts in September and October with hard work. These kids seem to realize that.

"The makeup of this team is unbelievably competitive. They went after each other. I expect to see the same Lobo mentality in the spring. I had better see it. The schedule I have for these guys is again one of the tougher schedules in the country."