April 26, 2010
By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
Freshmen are supposed to wait in the wings, be an understudy, dream about the on-deck circle, watch the juniors and seniors do their thing, and learn, learn, learn.
Freshmen need to get bigger, get stronger, get D-I smarter.
Ideally, you take a promising freshman, toss a redshirt year on him and roll that year of eligibility onto the backside of his career. In a way, a redshirt year allows a player to turn his worst season (first) in a program into his best season (fifth).
But sometimes there is a problem with this system. The freshmen are simply too good to sit the bench. Lobo baseball coach Ray Birmingham has more than a handful of talented freshmen and he hasn't been able to keep all them off the diamond.
"We have some big-time freshmen," said Birmingham. "We have some blue-chip talent. And these are kids with a great work ethic and impeccable character. They do everything right, they play hard and unselfish, and they are all team guys. I love 'em."
A few of those Lobo pups are right up there chewing on fastballs -- or throwing them -- right along with the New Mexico Lobos' veterans.
Alex Allbritton has started 33 of UNM's 41 games heading into Tuesday's visit from Texas Tech. He has 117 at-bats and is hitting .344. Instead of a red shirt season, Allbritton is looking like an All-Mountain West infielder at third base.
"Alex is going to be a big-league shortstop," said Birmingham. "He was recruited by Arizona and he said they called him and said he couldn't hit and they didn't want him. He's hitting .344 for us. We`ll take him."
The freshman from Aurora, Colo., is seeing the most action in the field, but Birmingham also is getting upperclassmen production from several freshmen including Mitchell Garver, John Michael Twichell, Devon Conley, Jacob Nelson, Bobby Mares and Austin House.
Garver, a La Cueva High product, probably would be the Lobos' starting catcher except for one reason. He is behind All-American candidate Rafael Neda, a junior. Birmingham sees great things in the future for his 6-1, 210-pound freshman, who is hitting .321 off 53 at-bats in 22 games.
"I think he is going to be the best catcher in Lobo history and we've had some good catchers and we got a good one starting now," said Birmingham. "Garver can hit with power and he can catch and throw and he is only going to get stronger."
Twichell is another Lobo pup that has pushed his way into quality playing time this season. He is hitting .395 with 43 at-bats. He has played in 27 games. Devon Conley, a Rio Rancho High product, has played in 11 games. "Twichell has some power," said Birmingham. "Devon is working on his switch-hitting and could be starting in the outfield next season."
John Michael Twichell
His freshmen have helped turn the 2010 Lobos into Mountain West Conference contenders. Here's a quick example of some freshman influence:
Lobos are trailing No. 1 Texas -- at Texas -- 5-4 with two innings to play. Birmingham looks over at his bullpen and for some reason plucks out a baby-faced freshman and tosses the pup in front of the Longhorns. The freshman throws two innings of no-hit, shutout ball and UNM rallies for a 6-5 win. The pup, Austin House of La Cueva High, strikes out the final two Texas batters.
"Austin's first Division One experience was closing a game at Texas," said Birmingham. "He beats the No. 1 team in the country at their place. That's the kind of freshmen I have.
"House has had some brilliant moments. Oscar Almeida has a 90 mile-per-hour arm. He still has to learn how to pitch, but you can see his potential. Steve Florez (Las Cruces) is redshirting, but we know he is going to be special pitcher. Jacob Nelson has a 90 mile-per-hour arm, but he also is a hitter (.320) with some power. We've gotten about 31 innings out of Bobby Mares and he has one of the lowest ERAs on the team.
"It's a mental challenge when you play against older players. The pitch you made in high school that got people out goes over the fence at this level. And you are looking at much better pitching. These freshmen are special and they all are going to get better and better with time spent at this level."
Lobo baseball definitely has a New Mexico flavor. Birmingham has 12 players with New Mexico high school or JC roots on his roster and six of his freshmen hail from New Mexico. Birmingham's philosophy with New Mexico talent is twofold: 1. He wants the best New Mexico has to offer; 2- When you become a Lobo, you are New Mexico.
A huge key for Birmingham is to not allow the best arms in New Mexico to leave the state. That can be tough because some kids just want to go away to school. But Birmingham's foundation of freshmen in 2011 includes three of the top high school pitchers in New Mexico ball: 6-4 Eli Freese and 6-2 Jake McCasland of Farmington and 6-2 Sam Wilson of Eldorado High.
"I don't think you can win with New Mexico kids, I know it," said Birmingham. "We're proving that and we're going to continue to prove that. We want the best New Mexico kids to be Lobos, but we want the best kids in the region, the best kids in America, to be Lobos."
Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former Associate Sports Editor and sports columnist at The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.