March 20, 2009
Sunday: Lobos 13, Northwestern 4
Up Next: Lobos vs. Brigham Young (3 games)
When/Where: 6 p.m. Thursday, 6 p.m. Friday, noon Saturday at Isotopes Park
Online: GameTracker, live web on GoLobos.com
Radio: 1150-AM KDEF
By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
There is a blip on the national radar of collegiate baseball. If you follow it down to its unlikely source, it will guide you to the booming voice of Lobo coach Ray Birmingham.
It will take you to New Mexico, to Albuquerque, and to the booming bats of Birmingham's University of New Mexico Lobos. If you follow the sound, you had better cover your ears. The blip and the booming is getting louder and louder and louder.
"I'm not shocked by any of this," said Birmingham. "This isn't my first rodeo. I believed we could do it here and the kids believe."
Birmingham is a Lobo symbol for the sports' phrase, "Bring it on!" He welcomes all comers. He welcomes a good, clean fight on the diamond. He shows no fear and no limitations in what he wants his Lobos to reach for and grasp.
And if the word "Omaha" slips from Birmingham's confident tongue, the heads that turn in his direction probably will be taking the Lobo coach a bit more seriously.
Omaha, the site of the NCAA Division I College World Series, has been Birmingham's intended destination for New Mexico ever since he donned a Lobos' baseball cap and began his brash predictions.
For many Lobo baseball fans, a Mountain West Conference crown or a simple UNM journey into the NCAA tourney would have been talk enough. The last time the Lobos played in the NCAA playoffs, John F. Kennedy was the U.S. President and gas was about 20 cents a gallon. It was 1962.
"Our program is growing so fast and improving so quickly, we are getting a lot of different reactions," said Birmingham. "Probably the most important impact is in recruiting. I'm having kids call me who were looking at other programs. Now, they want to be Lobos. People are noticing us now."
The latest attention-getting noise from Lobos came out of College Station, Texas where the Lobos pounded the No. 3-ranked Texas A&M Aggies twice on the Aggies' turf. The Lobos won 10-6 and 9-6.
"I was just kind of sitting back and looking at the two teams on the field," said Birmingham. "We went into that game thinking, `Let's see where we're at.` As the game went on, I was thinking, `Heck, we're better than them.`
"I had no doubt we were the better team. They might have had better and bigger athletes, but in baseball that doesn't always matter. We didn't see any monsters over there. You just go out and beat `em and we have a bunch of kids who believe they can beat anyone."
"A&M was a team some people picked to be No. 1 in the nation. Those wins were huge. It would be like the Lobos basketball team beating Duke or the football team beating USC.
"Beating A&M might legitimize to some people that we really can get to Omaha. I knew some people probably didn't take that seriously, but I didn't care. We knew it all the time. It matters what I think and what the guys think."
Birmingham thinks his 22-3 Lobos' four-game sweep of Northwestern this past weekend should push his Lobos into the polls. He said the last time UNM cracked a national poll was in 1985 (No. 14). The Lobos already are receiving votes in one of the six national polls. UNM is No. 41 in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches poll.
The four-game series with Northwestern was the Lobos' final tune up before the Mountain West Conference wars begin. The Lobos host Brigham Young March 26-27-28. The Lobos also are looking at non-conference games with Texas Tech, Arizona, Nebraska and Stanford.
UNM's regular-season record is important because no Mountain West Conference baseball team has ever received at at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Birmingham would like to keep that option open because the MWC's only guaranteed doorway to NCAA play is by winning the MWC tourney and grabbing the automatic bid. Oh, Birmingham plans to do that, too, but it's not smart to place all your playoff hopes on a tourney. That's why teams like Texas A&M are on the Lobos' schedule.
"We want to have a lot of wins and we want to go out and play people where they (NCAA Selection Committee) can't ignore you," said Birmingham.
The Lobos' scores at Texas A&M probably personify, a bit, the personality of this UNM team. If you don't have a stud on the mound throwing his A game, the Lobos are going to pound out a lot of runs. They scored 10 runs and 9 runs at A&M.
The NCAA official stats have not yet been released but Lobo Ryan Honeycutt (.540) is listed as No. 2 in the nation on one collegiate website (Boydsworld.com).
The Lobos smack the ball. They list eight players with multiple-hit games: Honeycutt, Kevin Atkinson, Mike Brownstein, Rafael Neda, Brian Cavazos-Galvez, Dane Hamilton, Daniel Gonzalez and Max Willett. The team batting average is .399 and 13 Lobos are hitting above .300.
Birmingham's problem isn't who to start. It's who not to start. His lineup is loaded with active and hot bats. The team's slugging percentage is a whopping .600.
"I work real hard on teaching kids how to hit," said Birmingham. "We don't look for a lot of home runs, but we don't' want to go up there and strike out. We make contact and we are good with two strikes. There hasn't been one guy in our lineup who hasn't been hot at some point this season."
Of course, to twist around a golf analogy, you hit for show and you pitch for dough. The guys on the mound are a huge part of the package that determines how far you go in a season -- and how far you advance toward Omaha in NCAA play.
In college ball, hitting is huge because a lot of the top-shelf pitching was seduced by the Major League draft and you can go out and out-run people. But when you get to the top-shelf teams in America, you often need the big three of baseball: hitting, pitching, defense.
"I'm not shocked by any of this. This isn't my first rodeo. I believed we could do it here and the kids believe. That's all that matters."
Lobo coach Ray Birmingham on Lobos hot start in 2009
"Our starters have done OK, but I expect them to do better. I'm still looking for that one guy who wants to go out there and mow everybody down. But it's coming. Our offense has covered up a lot of mistakes and we need to smooth out those mistakes.
"But our kids are confident and their work ethic has improved their confidence. Success helps your confidence, too. We have room for improvement. You always are looking for perfection and even though you know you won't reach it, that's still the direction you move in.
"There might be some naysayers looking out of the corner of their eyes at us, but that's fine. And you have to remember, we just started this. We're just getting started."
Which means the blip and the booming and the noise coming from the Lobos is going to get louder and louder.