May 18, 2009
What: Lobos at Conoco MWC Tournament
When/Where: May 19-23, Lupton Stadium, Fort Worth, Texas
TV: The Mtn (Comcast 276, DirecTV 616)
Online: GameTracker, recaps on GoLobos.com
Lobo Opener: 2 p.m. Wednesday vs. TBA
By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
A Murderers' Row is a nice thing for a baseball team to have. It refers to the core of a lineup that simply pounds the baseball, pounds pitchers and pounds other teams.
The phrase was coined in 1918 referring to a particularly good core of batters thrown out by the New York Yankees. However, the colorful phrase probably eternally will be linked to the 1927 Yankees whose Murderers' Row included a couple of diamond immortals named Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
Lobo coach Ray Birmingham has his own version of a Murderers' Row. In a way, the Birmingham Bombers are even nastier on their level than the 1927 Bronx Bombers were on their level. Those Yankees had no hitters batting over .400. Birmingham has five. The '27 Yanks had only five batters hitting .300 or better. Birmingham has nine.
"Hitting is talent, sure, but it's also hard work and perseverance," said Birmingham. "Our guys work their tails off to be good in the box. There is a lot of discipline and a lot of focus when you step to the plate.
"There is a mental side as well as a physical side and we work hard at both. I don't let up on them. I stay on them."
One of the neat things about Birmingham's Murderers' Row is that it's a stretchy thing. Usually, the meat of a lineup is scary for three or four batters. Birmingham's Row goes from one to nine.
The five Lobos hitting over .400 for the season are Mike Brownstein (.426), Rafael Neda (.416), Ryan Honeycutt (.416), Kevin Atkinson (404) and Brian Cavazos-Galvez (.403). Then you have Dane Hamilton (.372), Max Willett (.363), Adam Courcha (.324) and Justin Howard (.317).
This is one nasty lineup and one huge reason the Lobos carved out a 37-18 regular season record and head into the Conoco Mountain West Conference tourney in Fort Worth carrying the No. 2 seed.
But the key to a MWC tournament title might not be the Lobos' hitting. The UNM sticks have been noisy and consistent all season. The key in Fort Worth probably will be how the Lobo arms hold up against the opposing sticks in the MWC.
So, is the pressure on Lobos like Gabe Aguilar, Cole White, Daniel Grubbs, John Hesketh, Bobby Moore, Rudy Jaramillo and Clinton Cox to perform on the mound and not get shelled by any Murderers' Rows on the other teams? Birmingham says yes and no.
Yeah, his Lobo arms need to perform at a high level, but Birmingham says this pressure isn't a new thing for his Lobo hurlers to deal with. They have been dealing with it since Day One.
"Our guys work their tails off to be good in the box."
Lobo coach Ray Birmingham on New Mexico's dynamic core of hitters
The Lobos, TCU, Brigham Young, San Diego State, UNLV and Utah enter the tourney chasing the all-important automatic bid to NCAA postseason - a bid that goes to the tourney champ. TCU also appears to be a lock for an at-large bid and Birmingham thinks his Lobos have earned the same respect.
"I think if we go to the championship game, that solidifies us (as an at-large team)," said Birmingham. "But I think we are a regional team right now and deserve to be a regional team."
The destiny faced by all MWC teams that don't win the conference title is a seat on the omnipresent "bubble" that floats around NCAA Selection Committees. The Lobos have a strong case for at-large consideration as does BYU and San Diego State. But no MWC team has ever earned a spot in the NCAA Baseball Tournament with an at-large bid.
So, the best way to lock down a dancing ticket in NCAA play is to leave Fort Worth as MWC champions. That will be a tough thing to accomplish especially with No. 1 seed TCU enjoying the home-field advantage - an advantage the Horned Frogs rode to the MWC title in 2008 over the Lobos.
"TCU is a good baseball team playing on their field and that's a huge advantage," said Birmingham. "We have a chance to make another run at them. We just have to take care of business."
The Lobos open the double-elimination MWC tourney at 2 p.m. Wednesday against the highest seed winner from Tuesday's first-round games : No. 3 BYU vs. No. 6 Utah and No. 4 San Diego State vs. No. 5 UNLV. TCU gets the other winner. All games from the tourney will be broadcast on The Mtn. Sports Network.
"This is a tough, good conference," said Birmingham. "Sometimes the winner is just who gets hot and stays hot and gets some breaks at the right time."
Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former Associate Sports Editor and sports columnist for The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Previous GoLobo.com articles can be found on The Richard Stevens Corner.