June 21, 2011
New Mexico Lobo Baseball 2011 Season Review
By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
The method to Lobo Coach Ray Birmingham's self-confessed "madness" in the Lobos' season of 2011 proves that sometimes the end does justify the means.
The 2011 University of New Mexico Lobos' baseball season has a distinct beginning and a distinct ending. And, yes, maybe the means seemed a bit mean at times as the young and road weary Lobos took more than their share of lumps in rolling out a regular-season mark of 16-39 that included losing skids of eight, seven (twice) and six games.
But, really, those skids were part of the plan, which is the "beginning" part of this story. That's when Birmingham sat down and plotted his "madness," which was to throw his baby-faced Lobos into a fire of a schedule and see if they would emerge as steel -- or simply melt down.
"Our plan was to get battle tested in the hardest way possible," said Birmingham.
Oh, there were a few meltdowns in Birmingham's Marquis de Sade schedule, which was one of the more grueling slates in NCAA baseball. There was a gamble here, for sure.
Would his young Lobo pups -- featuring a lone senior in Richard Olson and no returning starters at any position -- grow teeth or would Birmingham have to buy a bushel of pacifiers and maybe some postseason sessions with a good psychologist?
"We told the kids that it would be rough all year and people would doubt you and you will doubt yourselves," said the Lobo coach. "But we knew there was enough talent to get it done. It was a season of growing up, maturing and building the confidence to play the game the right way."
The Lobos' schedule was a beast including diamond bullies like Arizona State, Creighton, Oklahoma State, Gonzaga, TCU and Oklahoma. What the beast did was build a Mountain West champion.
"This season was a great tribute to these young men and this team," said Birmingham. "They never fell in a hole. They never went into a fetal position and said, 'I've had enough.' They fought. They fought. They fought."
They also took their lumps and going into the 2011 Mountain West Conference Tournament in San Diego, the Lobos had lost seven straight with the final three losses to a No. 7 ranked TCU team that rolled out 46 runs in Isotopes Park.
It looked like the Lobos would be in a tidal wave of trouble in San Diego. Instead, they rocked the conference, rocked Brigham Young, TCU, Utah and TCU again, and grabbed New Mexico's first ever Mountain West tourney title.
Take your pick of words to describe this amazing Lobo turnaround, but don't throw out the word "miracle."
The baseball played by the Lobos in San Diego was precise, fundamental, purposeful, clutch and clean. There might have been some good fortune thrown in there, too, but from May 24 to May 27, the best team in the Mountain West was a team of Lobos.
UNM said goodbye to BYU with a 5-4 win in 11 innings, beat TCU 4-3, beat Utah 6-5 and beat TCU 4-2 in the championship game.
"I was worried the schedule might take away their confidence, but they learned they were good enough to compete with the best teams in the country," said Birmingham. "I knew the talent was there. It was just a question of growing up before the season came to an end and they did it.
"Things went just like planned. We played the best of the best all year and it paid off."
The stunning ending in San Diego also produced a Lobo team with newfound confidence and deadly balance. "It took time for them to figure some things out, but now these guys know they can compete with anyone," Birmingham said after the second win over TCU. "They just beat TCU, so they can pretty much beat anybody."
There were plenty of UNM heroes in San Diego, but the performances on the mound were critical. The Lobos gave up 13 walks in four games. Rudy Jaramillo went eight innings vs. BYU, allowing three runs. He was relieved by Gera Sanchez, who gave up no runs in three innings of relief.
Senior Richard Olson went five innings against TCU allowing three runs. Bobby Mares pitched four innings of scoreless relief. Against Utah, Alexis Garza came out of the bullpen to throw 5.1 innings and allowed one run. In the championship game win over TCU, Austin House went seven innings allowing two runs with nine strikeouts. Mares relieved, giving up no runs in two innings.
The Lobos fell out of the NCAA first round in two games, but the baseball played by UNM once again was on a high level in both performance and attitude. UNM had to play the region's top seed in Arizona State on the Sun Devils' home field. UNM took a 2-1 lead into the ninth inning before a three-run homer sent the Lobos into the losers' bracket.
The Lobos might have been one pitch away from an upset over ASU. Or maybe they were one swing of the bat away from marching further along the road to Omaha. The pitch UNM's Gera Sanchez threw at ASU's Joey DeMichele wasn't really a bad one, but the Sun Devil made a good swing to produce his walk-off homer.
The Lobos postseason run ended the next day in a 3-0 loss to No. 16 ranked Arkansas. The Lobos ran into a hot pitcher in Arkansas' DJ Baxendale, who entered the game with a 1.75 ERA. UNM's Olson went seven innings, allowing only two runs off six hits. House gave up one run in relief. The Lobos ended the season at 20-41.
"These kids overcame some huge challenges, hung in there and got it done," said Birmingham. "We did the right things physically to become Mountain West Champions. But if these kids hadn't been so tough mentally, if they hadn't believed in themselves and their teammates, none of that would have happened.
"It was all about attitude. The attitude in the Lobo program is the core of what baseball is all about."
Lobo freshman DJ Peterson also threw out one of the top seasons ever by a Lobo rookie. Peterson set the NCAA single-season mark for doubles (32) by a freshman.
Peterson also was named to the 2011 Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American Team and to the 2011 National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA) Freshman All-American Team. He led the Lobos in the majority of offensive statistics this season including: batting average (.317), hits (78), home runs (6), RBI's (48), total bases (134) and slugging percentage (.545).
Peterson's 32 doubles tied him with former Lobo Justin Howard for the single-best season in Mountain West Conference history. Peterson finished second in the nation overall in doubles this year, trailing Jason Krizan of Dallas Baptist, who set the NCAA single-season record with 39 doubles.
The Lobos' season that began with that challenging schedule ended up producing a cohesive team that should enter the 2012 season as a team the opposition might want to avoid.
"You can go coast-to-coach and people talk about UNM and the great attitude we have here: no fear," said Birmingham. "This is a tough man's game. Baseball is not a pretty-boy sport. The guys who learn to be blue-collar, hard-nosed guys like we produce in Lobo baseball are going to be the guys who make it. They are going to have a shot."
The blue-collar attitude was a huge part of the Lobos' season of 2011. They Lobos rolled up their sleeves as a team and believed in the teammates who had their backs. The Lobos went into the MWC tourney as a team not expected to have much of a shot, but fired a shot heard around the conference.
"My puppies grew some teeth," said Birmingham.