May 19, 2012
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – The University of New Mexico team clinched at least a share of the Mountain West regular-season championship with an 11-5 victory over Air Force on Senior Day at Isotopes Park Saturday afternoon in front of 1,690 fans. This is UNM’s first regular-season conference championship since the 2000 season.
“It feels awesome obviously,” senior Kyle Stiner said. “And to clinch on the last day, our last home game, it feels awesome. And to be the first team in 12 years is a pretty big deal for this program. I’m pretty excited.”
“This is a huge, huge deal,” UNM head coach Ray Birmingham said. “What a moment in time today was. It was a battle.”
The Lobos finish the regular season with an overall record of 33-22 and an 18-6 mark in MW play, while the Falcons finish 14-36 overall and 5-19 in MW action.
With UNM trailing 5-4 in the bottom of the seventh, junior Josh Melendez lashed a bases-loaded triple off Air Force starter Evan Abrecht to the gap in right center, driving in three runs and giving the Lobos a lead they would not relinquish.
“It was a pitch up and away,” Melendez said. “My last at-bat (Abrecht) pitched me the exact same way … I was expecting to see the same pitch, and I got it, and I put the barrel on it.”
Bobby Mares got the win for New Mexico, improving to 1-1. Senior Gera Sanchez got the start, throwing four innings before being relieved by fellow senior Rudy Jaramillo. Sanchez faced 20 batters, allowing six hits and two earned runs while walking two and striking out four.
The Falcons, however, added a run in each of the next three innings to take a 3-1 lead into the bottom of the fourth. UNM tied the score with two more two-out runs, though. With Melendez on third and Trey Porras on second, freshman Alex Real smoked a double to right center to score both of them.
UNM added yet another two-out run in the fifth when Padilla singled to center to score Mitchell Garver from second.
But two Falcon runs in the sixth put the Lobos in a 5-4 hole heading into the seventh. UNM made the necessary adjustments.
“We hit too late in the count (early in the game),” Birmingham said. “We had to take advantage of the first pitch.”
That’s exactly what the Lobos did.
Garver and Ben Woodchick led off with back-to-back singles in the seventh, each on the first pitch of the at-bat. Padilla walked one batter later to load the bases for Melendez’s heroics.
“It feels like no matter what the score or what inning we’re in we have a chance to come back and do something offensively,” Stiner said.
The Falcons threatened in the eighth, loading the bases with two outs for their best hitter, Garret Custons. But Gabe Aguilar came in, threw one pitch, and got a groundball to Peterson at third to end the threat.
The Lobos then added three insurance runs in the bottom half of the inning, two of which came on Garver’s 10th home run of the season.
The Lobos finished with 17 hits to Air Force’s 14 while eight different UNM players recorded a hit.
Melendez finished the day with three hits, four RBIs, and two runs. Garver, who was named a semifinalist for the Johnny Bench Award earlier this week, went 3-for-5, batted in two runs and crossed home three times while designated hitter Alex Real was 3-for-4 with two RBIs.
UNM now awaits the results of TCU’s final two games against San Diego State. If the Horned Frogs win both games, then TCU and UNM will share the title, but the Lobos will still be the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament based on tiebreakers. If TCU loses either game then UNM will be the sole champions.
“It just typifies what these guys have done,” Birmingham said. “We start the season off and the pitching doesn’t work out the way it has to. Guys have sore arms and we go 2-9. And then after that we’re (31-13). They just fought, and scratched, and clawed, and they just find a way. It’s a tribute to these young men. They’re champions.”
The Lobos will face host UNLV in the Mountain West tournament at 8 p.m. (MT) on Thursday, May 24.
“I’m very confident (about the tournament),” Melendez said. “We’ve seen all these guys throughout the season, and we’ve hit everybody really well. As the conference champion we have the upper hand.”
“We’ve got a long ways to go,” Stiner said. “We’ve been playing good ball. We just have to keep it up and work on some small things, but we’re ready to see what happens in the postseason.”
Game notes: The victory marked career win no. 980 for Birmingham ... it was the 26th straight home victory over the Falcons for the Lobos ... the appearance by Jaramillo was the 62nd of his career, which ties him for fifth all-time at UNM ... Melendez's triple was his eighth this season, which ties him for second in the NCAA ... Lobo pitchers have struck out 423 batters this season, which is second on the single-season list for UNM.