June 1, 2009
By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
To put into perspective the unbelievable hitting year Ray Birmingham's Lobos had in 2009, all you have to do is glance at the 2009 NCAA Baseball Tournament bracket and do some math, do some comparing.
Question: Which of those 64 NCAA-bound teams led the nation in hitting?
Answer: None of them. The University of New Mexico led the nation in hitting at .363. Texas, the overall No. 1 seed, hit .289.
Question: How many of the 16 Super Regional teams does it take to match the number of .400 hitters produced by Birmingham at New Mexico?
Answer: They don't match up at all. Birmingham produced five .400 hitters at UNM in 2009's regular season: -- Brian Cavazos-Galvez (.403), Kevin Atkinson (.404), Ryan Honeycutt (.416), Mike Brownstein (.426) and Rafael Neda (.416). There is just one .400 hitters in the NCAA Sweet 16 field - Dustin Ackley of North Carolina.
The point here is obvious. The reputation Birmingham built at New Mexico Junior College as one of the top hitting instructors in the nation has carried over to the Division I level in a big way.
And those powerful Lobo sticks that Birmingham helped create are part of the reason his Lobos roared into the Top 20 this season and charged to a second-place Mountain West Conference finish behind TCU, a Top 10 team that surged into the Super Regionals to battle Texas.
Of course, there is another reason Birmingham's Lobos were so solid throughout the 2009 season, winning 37 games and producing a winning record against the three Mountain West teams (Utah, San Diego State, TCU) that slipped ahead of UNM into the NCAA postseason: These Lobos believed they were going to win and then went out and did it.
One of the highlights of UNM`s high-energy belief came when the Lobos visited then-No. 3 ranked Texas A&M for a doubleheader and swept the Aggies on their turf, 10-6 and 9-6.
"I think at first there was a lot of talk about winning and how good we expected to be," said Brownstein, the MWC Player of The Year. "It's one thing to go out and say it, talk about it. But when you really start to believe it, then it becomes a real expectation."
Those expectations were never thin or dream-like for Birmingham. He came to New Mexico with a bring-it-on attitude and his Lobos backed him up on the field despite a smattering of doubt from critics who have long watched the Lobo baseball program struggle.
"I believe we can do it here and the kids believe. That's all that matters," said Birmingham. "Our program is growing so fast and improving so quickly, we are getting a lot of different reactions.
"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."
The message for Lobo senior Brian Cavazos-Galvez when he was contemplating whether or not to follow Birmingham from NMJC to UNM was not to lose the hitting coach who was helping push Cavazos-Galvez to the next level.
"I used to fight Ray over some of the things he was trying to do to my swing," said the UNM senior. "Then I just decided to do what he said and see what happened."
What happened is Cavazos-Galvez, a Louisville Slugger National Player of the Week (May 11-16), developed into a top outfielder prospect at the Major League level. He made the All-Mountain West Conference First Team along with teammates Brownstein, Neda, Atkinson and pitcher John Hesketh. Outfielder Max Willett made the second team.
It was a banner year for Birmingham's Lobos when it came to picking up honors. Brownstein, the MWC Player of The Year, was placed on the Louisville Slugger All-American Second Team. Brownstein and ace starter John Hesketh were named to the 2009 ESPN the Magazine Academic All-District VI Second Team. Cavazos-Galvez also was named CollegeBaseballInsider.com's National Player of the Week on May 20.
There is no doubt that the reason so many Lobos snatched postseason honors is because of the way they pound the baseball. The Lobos had 770 hits in 2009: No. 1 in the nation in hits per games played.
"In junior college, a lot of guys showed up on the Major League radar because I taught them how to hit," said Birmingham, who won a national championship at NMJC. "When I came to Division I, I wanted to see if I could teach the same thing at that level.
"This program is beginning to be known for a lot of things, but our No. 1 trademark is winning and being successful in the classroom and we plan on doing a whole lot of that again next year."
Coach Ray Birmingham, whose Lobos led the nation in hitting in 2009
Birmingham's current challenge is coming on the recruiting trail. He has to replace part of his hitting crew: Atkinson, Brownstein, Cavazos-Galvez and Dane Hamilton (.372).
"That's a challenge and it's not a challenge," said Birmingham. "Those guys came in here needing to be taught how to hit and I'll do the same thing with the next group. We'll have our hitters."
One of Birmingham's favorite expressions is, "This isn't my first rodeo." The cagy and fiery Lobo coach also knows he needs to improve his Lobos on the mound. There is a reason Texas hits only .289, but is the top overall No. 1 seed: pitching.
"We will develop pitchers here, too," said Birmingham. "Our mission is to put a complete team of Lobos on the field. But if a guy comes in here behind our kind of offense, he can win 12 games a year and get a whole lot of attention.
"There is no question we need more of a bulldog attitude on our pitching staff. But we have guys coming in who can be bulldogs and Rudy Jaramillo did a great job on the mound as a freshman and I think he'll grow into that role.
"We are taking the right steps to build this program and we are taking steps in the right direction. Our goal is to reach the NCAA playoffs and we were a game away the last two years.
"We open with Texas next year and we plan to compete on a high level. We were ranked No. 18, finished second in the Mountain West for the second year in a row, and we had the Player of The Year. We are doing the things we need to do in order to get where we want to go.
"We had a successful season in every which way except we didn't reach the NCAA regional, but we will change that. This program is beginning to be known for a lot of things, but our No. 1 trademark is winning and being successful in the classroom and we plan on doing a whole lot of that again next year."
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 articles are available at The Richard Stevens Corner.