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Stevens: Lobos' Way To Winning Includes That Mound Thing
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics  
Release:  03/18/2010
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics

March 18, 2010

Lobo Baseball -- at Isotopes Park
Friday:
Lobos vs. Utah, 6 p.m.
Saturday: Lobos vs. Utah 2 p.m.
Sunday: Lobos vs. Utah, 12 noon

By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/GoLobos.com

Does the University of New Mexico have another team that seems to find a way to win? Consider a few tight scores posted in wins by Ray Birmingham's Lobos:

  • A 6-5 and 3-1 win at then-No. 1 Texas.
  • A 3-2 win at Southern Cal.
  • A 6-5 win, a 15-14 win in ten innings, a 7-6 win in ten innings.

    One thing is certain: If you a UNM opponent nursing a slim lead against the Lobo bats, you probably aren't comfortable until you are standing in the postgame shower looking at the "W" next to your name.

    Even then, a pitcher might suffer a "Psycho" moment when he hallucinates the shower curtain being pulled back and sees a Lobo standing there holding a bat.

    Yeah, Birmingham's Lobos are once again pounding the leather and turning knees wobbly on the mound. Now, if the New Mexico pitching would just come along.

    "The talent is there, but they aren't pitching like they should," said Birmingham. "They have to throw three pitches for strikes and learn to make adjustments. You can't just throw fastballs. You have to change rhythms and you have to throw strikes.

    "Our hitters will have some moments when a guy is on the mound for the other team having a special moment. And we'll have to pitch. That's baseball. You can't throw up nine, ten runs every game. You have to pitch. That's baseball."

    Now, before you start thinking that Birmingham is down on his pitching staff, let's make this crystal clear: He's not. He just knows that hitting has been a constant at New Mexico and at a whole lot of other schools around the nation. He also knows that what eventually separates a team from the pack is the arms on the mound.

    Birmingham wants separation. So do his Lobos.

    "Our goal is to separate ourselves and prove that we are the best team in the conference," said Lobo senior Justin Howard, who is pounding the ball at a .462 clip. "Conference is a new season with new energy, new intensity and every game means something."

    That Mountain West Conference title and UNM's foe this Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Isotopes Park probably has pushed pitching way to the front of coach Birmingham's priorities. Utah's strength is on the mound.

    If one of those Utes has a special moment on the mound, it might be nice if some Lobo arm is having a special moment, too.

    "Utah is very good and they can pitch," said Birmingham. "They have a lot of good athletes, but their strength is on the mound. They have a team ERA of 3.9. I'm jealous of that."

    The Lobos' 13-5 record hasn't come without some solid mound work, but in March UNM had four games in which UNM gave up 17, 14, 10 and 14 runs. That's putting pressure on the bats. You give up that many runs while some enemy is having a "special moment" on the mound, and you might be looking at a "L." Birmingham doesn't like the letter "L", except when it stands for Lobos.

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    "I want to beat everybody. Everybody I play is like preparing to go out against the Yankees."
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    "I want to beat everybody," he said. "Everybody I play is like preparing to go out against the Yankees."

    The Lobos already are on the national radar in 2010. They earned that with a 2-1 series win at Texas. The Lobos are ranked No. 23 in Ping!baseball's top-30 and No. 24 in Collegiate Baseball Newspaper's Top-40 poll this week.

    The Lobos have a hot pitcher going into the Utah series in Mike Lachapelle. He is coming off wins over New Mexico State and Louisiana Tech. He went eight innings against the Aggies in a 13-4 win. The junior has a 3.95 ERA with 15 strikeouts and five walks.

    "I've kind of zoned in, locked in," said Lachapelle. "I know I have the stuff to shut people down and I've told myself to go out and perform. I'm trying to lock in on every pitch. I think our whole staff is improving. We are doing a good job of coming in and shutting the door."

    Birmingham said a task for his young team is to adapt quickly to the mental aspect of the athletic challenge. "So much of this game is mental," he said. "Young guys sometimes worry about too many things. It shouldn't be a fear of failure. It's about getting it, doing it, taking it, believing."

    Howard said he likes the confidence on the UNM team. "We're upbeat right now," he said. "Our lineup is deep with hitters. The other teams can't pitch around anybody.

    "Our pitching staff has had some struggles, but it seems they always get focused and bounce back. I've been impressed with that."

    The Utes come to Albuquerque mired in an eight-game losing streak to the Lobos. UNM definitely was a team that "found a way" last season as it swept the Utah series winning all games in extra innings.

    Utah is 7-7 on the season and has lost five of its past seven games. Utah returns seven pitchers from last year's squad and is led at the plate by catcher C.J. Cron, with a .386 average. The Utes' ace is Rick Anton, who is 3-1 with a 3.31 ERA. Anton has 23 strikeouts on the season with just two walks.

    The Mountain West baseball schedule does not include home-and-away series with each conference team. The Lobos get BYU and TCU in Albuquerque, but don't play those teams on the road. UNM must visit UNLV and Air Force, but gets no return date in Albuquerque. The Lobos do play home-and-away with Utah and San Diego State.

    "All the series are important," said Birmingham, "But the next one is always the most important. Right now, Utah is the next one."

    Yep, the Utes will be standing across from Birmingham and the Lobos this weekend. The Lobo coach probably will be looking at Yankee pinstripes.

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