May 27, 2010
By Richard Stevens -- Senior Wrtier/GoLobos.com
If the Lobos had a minor goal, a subplot in the Mountain West Conference Championship, it was to push into the title game and clearly establish themselves as the league power along with TCU.
Mission accomplished. Now, the Lobos go after a MWC crown, an NCAA bid -- and the TCU Horned Frogs.
The Lobos pounded out seven runs in the bottom of the first inning, hammered UNLV 10-3, and roll on to face the No. 1 seed TCU Horned Frogs in tonight's championship game.
If the No. 2 seed Lobos can pull down the Horned Frogs tonight, UNM and TCU will battle for the MWC crown again in the "if-necessary" game at 2 p.m.(MT) Saturday.
The MWC title brings with it an automatic NCAA bid. The conference runner-up has to await the decision of the NCAA Selection Committee to see if a MWC second-place trophy is worthy of an at-large bid.
The Frogs really have nothing to worry about. The No. 6 ranked team in NCAA ball and the MWC regular-season champion is a lock for an at-large bid. You would think that the New Mexico team that finished second in the regular season and scratched into the MWC finals also is worthy of NCAA play.
However, the Lobos would rather slap down the Frogs twice and dance back to Albuquerque with the automatic ticket to postseason play. UNM has not reached the NCAA tourney since 1962.
The Lobos wasted no time in the bottom of the first in reminding the Rebs that New Mexico is one of the top hitting teams in the country. UNM got back-to-back walks from Adam Courcha and Justin Howard before Rafael Neda singled in the Lobos' first run.
The floodgates were open. The big blow was a two-out, bases-loaded triple by Daniel Gonzalez. His deep shot to right-center cleared the bases and put UNM up 7-0. The Lobos added two more runs in the bottom of the second inning when Chris Juarez and Max Willett singled and were pushed home by a Cameron Smith single
The Lobos were up 9-0 and the Rebs never could figure out UNM's Rudy Jaramillo, who went 7.1 innings, allowing seven hits and three runs.
The Lobo sticks that led the MWC in hitting this season were nasty from the start vs. UNLV. UNM ended the game with six Lobos having multi-hit games: Courcha 3-3, Honeycutt 2-5, Chris Juarez 2-3, Willett 2-4, Smith 2-4 and Gonzalez 3-3. Gonzalez and Smith each had three RBIs. UNM ended with 15 hit. Lobo Jason Oatman came out of the bullpen to relieve Jaramillo.
The Lobo win Friday over UNLV was easy and decisive, but UNM's first elimination game Thursday against Brigham Young was an ulcer-builder for Lobo fans and maybe even coach Ray Birmingham.
Prior to New Mexico's losers' bracket game with BYU, Birmingham said his Lobos "still had a pulse" in the 2010 Mountain West Championships. You couldn't blame Birmingham if he slipped a couple of fingers onto his wrist and searched for a beat four innings into that game.
The Lobos were in a 6-0 hole and looking a lot like the UNM team that rolled over 6-3 to UNLV. The Lobos found a slight pulse and the scoreboard in the fifth inning by pushing across two runs. The Lobos' found a strong and healthy pulse in the sixth inning when senior Justin Howard pounded a two-out, three-run homer to pull the Lobos into a 6-all tie.
The Cougars' mistake was not kicking the Lobos when they were down. The Lobos got off the ground and took a 7-6 MWC tourney win. The Lobos (36-19) are still three wins away from grabbing the automatic NCAA bid that goes to the tourney winner.
"This (win) gives us some new life," said Howard. "Hopefully, we can build on this, get some momentum and win this thing."
Max Willett handed UNM its first lead of the game in the bottom of the seventh when he slapped a long single into left. Ryan Honeycutt raced in from second to score. It was all the lead the Lobos would need as they stayed alive in the double-elimination tourney.
It was a great comeback for a No. 2 seed Lobo team that had been struggling at the plate early and had one foot on the brink of elimination. "These kids have scratched and clawed and battled all year long," said Birmingham. "I can't say enough about them."
The Lobos also got a great performance out of the bullpen from lefty Mike Lachapelle, who relieved starter Kenny Toves in the second inning. The reliever pitched 7.2 innings, scattering eight hits, and allowing two runs.
"Lachapelle came in and clutched up," said Birmingham. "I got to go give him a hug."
Birmingham might save some of that coach's love for Howard. The big senior hit into a double play earlier with two runners on base. He "clutched up" in the sixth inning when he pounded one deep into the heavy San Diego air.
"I was trying too much (on the double-play grounder)," said Howard. "I had an opportunity again to drive in some runs and I was relaxed. I said, 'Have fun.' I was just trying to see it and hit it. He (BYU pitcher) left it over the middle of the plate."
BYU might have been a little leg weary late in the game. The Cougars got into a track meet/football game with Utah earlier in the day with the two teams combining for 43 runs. Fortunately for the Cougs, they scored 25 of them. BYU had innings of seven, seven and 10 runs, rolling to a 24-8 lead in the 25-18 pounding of Utes.
BYU went up on UNM 6-0 and 6-2, but did not score in the final four innings against Lachapelle.
"I came in and my mindset was to take us as far as I can. I kept rolling, so they left me out there," said Lachapelle. "They (Cougars) were hot coming in, putting up 25 runs in the game before. I tried to keep them off balance, change speeds."
Howard ended the game going 2-for-5 with three RBIs and a dinger. Gonzalez went 4-for-4 with two runs scored and an RBI. Honeycutt, Alex Allbritton and Willett also had two-hit games for UNM. The Lobos finished with 14 hits to nine for BYU.
UNM's Toves got himself into trouble early. The Lobo lefty gave up a leadoff single and then had back-to-back walks to load the bases with one out. He got the second out on a chopper to Adam Courcha at second, which also produced the Cougars' 1-0 lead. Toves got the third out on a Sean McNaughton fly ball to center with two Cougars on base. McNaughton had hit two grand slams against Utah.
BYU pushed the Lobos deeper into a hole in the top of the second. Toves walked his third Cougar to set the plate for Dane Nielsen, who reached down to pound a breaking ball over the left field wall. It was Nielsen's third homer of the season and his second on the day. BYU was up 3-0.
A reachable double off the wall in right by BYU's Brandon Relf sent Toves to the bench early. Lachapelle came in to relieve. BYU's Alex Wolfe slapped a seeing-eye single between first and second to drive in Relf. BYU had extended its lead to 4-0.
Gonzalez got the bottom of the third off to a good start for UNM with a sharp single up the middle. UNM lost that edge when Gonzalez was thrown out trying to take second on a ball that scooted a few feet behind the BYU catcher. Howard pounded a two-out double deep into right-center that would have scored Gonzalez. Howard was stranded at second when Neda chipped one back to the pitcher and was thrown out at first.
The Mountain Network talked to Birmingham after the fourth inning. His Lobos had not scored in ten innings, going back to the UNLV game. "I've watched guys swing at pitches they never swung at in their lives," he said. "We have to figure this out and get it done and I think we will."
Birmingham's prediction didn't look too good a few minutes later. McNaughton reached first on a sharp, two-out single into left. BYU's Austin Hall then pushed a high fly into right field that had enough pop to knife through the thick San Diego sky and clear the fence. BYU was up 6-0. It was Hall's second homer of the day as he also went yard vs. Utah.
The Lobo bats woke up in the bottom of the fifth. UNM got singles from Allbritton, Gonzalez and Courcha to set the table for Howard. Howard chopped a grounder to second that BYU hungrily turned into a double play.
Allbritton broke the ice at home plate. The Lobos were down 6-1, but lost two outs on Howard's grounder. Rafael Neda cut into BYU's lead with a single to left to drive in Gonzalez. UNM was down 6-2. The Lobo bats finally were making some noise.
Honeycutt then slapped a breaking ball into left to push Neda to third. UNM had runners on the corners and BYU pulled starter, Chris Howard. Howard left after 4.2 innings, scattering eight hits with no strikeouts. The Cougars had squeezed some good work out of an unproven freshman. BYU's David Parry came out of the bullpen and got UNM's Chris Juarez to hit a chopper to short. BYU went to second to force Honeycutt and the Cougars were out of the inning.
The Lobos got four runs in the sixth. Allbritton skidded a perfect bunt down the third base line with two outs. He was moved to second on a balk by BYU's Parry. Gonzalez floated a single into left-center to score Allbritton. Parry walked Courcha, who joined Gonzalez on the bags. BYU went to the bullpen to pull out righty Kevin Sloan to throw at Howard with two-out and two Lobos on base.
Howard hit his three-run homer. It was his 10th homer of the season and UNM and BYU got to start over -- dead even at six-all. The Lobos took their 7-6 lead in the seventh on Willett's single that scored Honeycutt.
The Lobos had a great chance to add an insurance run in the bottom of the eighth. UNM shortstop Daniel Gonzalez got his fourth hit of the day -- a leadoff triple. The Lobos couldn't get a ball to the right side as Courcha and Howard grounded out to third. Neda then struck out to end the inning.
The Cougars had one last chance to rally in the top of the ninth. The Cougars ended their season going down -- one, two three.
Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former Associate Sports Editor and sports columnist for The Albuquerque Tribune. He can be reached at email@example.com.