Feb. 10, 2004
Coming off one of the most impressive offensive seasons in Lobo history, the 2004 New Mexico baseball team will not only count on its hitting this spring, but also its improved pitching depth and defense. The 2004 season also marks a new era for Lobo baseball - beginning this spring, UNM will play all of its home games in the state-of-the-art Isotopes Park, home of the Triple-A Albuquerque Isotopes. The park, which is fan and player friendly and seats over 11,000, is a symbol to the progress the Lobo baseball program has made under head coach Rich Alday.
"Playing in Isotopes Park will be awesome," said Alday. "It's probably one of the best fields in the country. It's going to be great for our fans, for our players and for our recruits. I'm looking forward in working with the city and the Isotopes in building a positive relationship for the future."
Alday, who is entering his 15th year at UNM, became the program's all-time winningest coach last season while also collecting his 900th career win. He has guided the Lobos to five 30-plus win seasons, including last spring's 34-26 mark. This year, he returns 11 letterwinners and six starters while bringing in a mix of junior college transfers and freshmen for a total of 18 newcomers.
"We're a young team and a veteran team," Alday said. "We're real strong up the middle, which is key, but we'll have some fresh faces on the corners. One positive is that we'll have a more mature pitching staff. I feel that we have a good mix of players coming back along with some junior college players who have already been under fire."
New Mexico traditionally is an explosive offensive team, and last year proved no different. The Lobos led the Mountain West Conference in nine offensive categories in 2003, and were third in the nation in batting with a .345 average. While the lineup lost All-Americans Chris Alexander (.360 BA, 25 HR, 94 RBI) and Dusty Young (.378 BA, 75 R) along with Cory Lizarraga (.374 BA, 9 HR) due to graduation, several veteran hitters return in 2004. Heading the list of returnees are seniors Sean Murray and Joe Salas and juniors Josh Mader and Matt Young. Murray will serve as one co-captain in 2004 alongside junior Jeff Grady.
"Offensively, I don't know if we'll have the same punch early in the year," said Alday. "If we grow up and mature throughout the season, we have a chance to be a real solid offensive club. The newcomers are very solid athletes, but they need to mature in order for us to be successful. Baseball is a game of failure. If they can overcome the adversity early on, we'll be fine."
While the Lobos have usually counted on the offense to carry the load, Alday believes pitching and defense will also play a major role this year. UNM returns starters at catcher (Grady), shortstop (Mader), second base (Ryan Barba), center field (Young) and right field (Murray), which will help strengthen the defense. On the mound, the Lobos return two letterwinners from 2003 in addition to adding 10 fresh faces, including six with junior college experience.
"As a team, it really depends on how they grow up and that the failure doesn't work on their minds," commented Alday. "It's not going to be the physical aspect, it's going to be the mental. They have to learn how to pick themselves up and not let it affect them on the field.
"I'm really excited for this team, and I think we can be successful," coach added. "If we can handle the mental aspects of the game, we're going to be fine."
The pitching staff is almost a complete overhaul of last year's team, with only two letterwinners returning. However, the Lobos add six hurlers with junior college experience along with four freshmen. In addition, five pitchers on the staff are left-handed. "In the fall, we really developed our pitching depth and got a good feel for what each pitcher can contribute, which was a big positive," Alday said.
The weekend rotation is minus James Vermilyea, who was drafted last June in the ninth round, but is stronger and deeper overall. After fall practice, Cooper Eddy, Petr Pacas and Darren Coltrinari are slated to be the three weekend starters.
Eddy, a junior, transferred to UNM after one year at Iowa Western Community College and Tennessee Tech. He throws in the low 90's, possesses a good curveball and straight change, and is learning how to control his cut-fastball.
"Cooper is looking pretty good," said Alday. "He's a complete guy, and has a chance to get drafted this year. He also holds runners and fields his position well. We're expecting good things from him this season."
Pacas is also a junior college transfer after pitching two seasons for Porterville College in California.
"Petr is a competitor, a bulldog - he'll go right after the hitter," coach said. "He has good location with his pitches and throws in the upper 80's. He has a good changeup, and his split-finger is one of his better pitches."
Coltrinari started eight games in the conference and 10 overall last season. The sophomore was third on the team with over 70 innings on the mound his freshman season and collected three wins along with 37 strikeouts.
"Darren's another pitcher that will go right after the hitter, a bulldog just like our other two starters," Alday said. "He does need to develop a little more consistency with his curveball and changeup, but he will definitely keep us in the game when he's on the mound."
While the starting rotation is set heading into the season, it could see some changes throughout the spring. Two transfers who had solid fall seasons - Jason Fernandez and Karsten Gaarder - will be the primary middle relievers and weekday starters, but could possibly see time as weekend starters as well.
The staff has an influx of lefties this season with five southpaws on the roster. Senior Joe Salas, the team's primary designated hitter, will be the closer after notching four saves and striking out 27 batters in 24.1 innings last season. Freshman Jackie Smith impressed the coaching staff in the fall and will have the opportunity to make several appearances. Fellow freshman Danny Ray Herrera has effective off-speed pitches and will look to slow the bats of opponents, while junior Mike Smith will be used as a situational reliever. Junior Lucas Smith, a transfer from Vernon America College, did not pitch in the fall due to an injury and is still questionable for the spring.
"The one thing I like is that this is probably the most depth pitching-wise I've had since I've been here," said Alday. "We've always had one or two strong guys, but it tailed off from there. So far, we've been pretty consistent with our ball-strike ratio and staying ahead of the hitters.
"A lot of our pitchers will only pitch for an inning or less," coach continued. "As a staff, we told them not to look at how many innings you pitch, but how many appearances you make."
One of the many challenges facing the pitching staff is the mile-high altitude of Albuquerque, a factor commonly known to benefit hitters.
"The pitchers really worry about that," said Alday. "We try and tell them not to worry about their ERA and solo home runs - you can't control those things. But the things you can control are first-pitch strikes, changing speeds, walks and getting ground balls. Those are the things we try and tell them to focus on."
The Lobos have the fortune of two solid defensive catchers who can also add a strong bat to the lineup. Junior co-captain Jeff Grady will be the primary starting catcher with sophomore A.J. Spitaleri also seeing some starts.
"We have two excellent catchers that can catch and throw very well," Alday said. "We're fortunate to have two good catchers because you can platoon them throughout the season, so you don't have to worry about them breaking down. They can block and call a good game. We tell them that we would rather have them be a good defensive catcher, and that whatever they do on offense is a plus."
Which shouldn't be a problem. Grady, one of the most powerful hitters on the team, blasted nine homers and six doubles while driving in 39 runs and hitting .300 in just 120 at-bats in 2003. The co-captain committed just eight errors in 249 chances (.968 fielding pct.) and threw out 11 base stealers.
Spitaleri made good use of his time at the plate, batting .339 with two homers and 20 RBI in only 115 at-bats, including six doubles and 20 runs. He was just as effective behind the plate, delivering a .984 fielding percentage and throwing out 11 runners.
"Jeff has great power at the plate, while A.J. makes good contact and hits the ball the other way really well," said Alday. "We really need them to do the little things this year, like sacrificing and moving the runners over, in order for us to be successful offensively."
The infield is a tale of two stories for the Lobos. Up the middle, UNM fields experience with two-year starter Josh Mader at shortstop and returning starter Ryan Barba at second base. On the corners, however, the Lobos will platoon several newcomers to see who fits in what position by the start of the conference season.
Mader, a first-team all-conference selection in 2003, will move to his natural position of shortstop after starting two years at third base. The Albuquerque native honed his skills by playing shortstop all last summer in the Alaska League. A lifetime .371 hitter, Mader cracked seven homers with 16 doubles and 47 RBI last season in addition to stealing 10 bases and scoring 55 runs. He ranked in the top 10 for the MWC in triples (five - T3rd), hits (86 - T6th) and total bases (133 - T10th).
"Josh played two years at third, but now it's his time to shine at shortstop," Alday said. "He has great speed and can cover a lot of ground. He's a great athlete - he can catch, throw and run. The scary thing is that he has the potential to hit even better than the past two seasons if he's a little more selective at the plate."
Barba is a sophomore who started 18 of the Lobos' last 21 games at second base. He filled in nicely late in the year, batting .366 with six doubles and 17 runs in only 93 at-bats.
"Ryan really swung the bat well for us last season and became a solid defensive player as well," said Alday. "He will probably play every game along with Mader."
The corners aren't so set in stone. Freshmen Tim Grady and Daniel Stovall will split time at third base as well as first base. Other candidates for first base include freshman Josh Cordova, freshman Brandon Bingham, senior Josh Jezek, and possibly senior right fielder Sean Murray if necessary. Freshmen Matt Foote, Chad Itokazu and Jay Russell could also see time in the infield.
"We have players that can play in multiple positions, we just have to find the right combination," Alday said. "We're going to rotate them around and we'll have plenty of options. The big thing is that we need to bring the freshmen around slowly and not rush them. Once conference play begins, we'll have a good set lineup."
The outfield appears to be the most stable unit for the Lobos. Two-year starter Matt Young will take over the reigns in center field after two years in left, co-captain and senior Sean Murray will start in right field for the second straight year, and junior college transfer Garrick Haymore will likely be in left field.
Young, a speedy junior, will be the leadoff hitter once again for the Lobos. The Murphy, Texas, native has started in all but three games in his career thus far at UNM. After earning Freshman All-America honors in 2002, Young batted .320 with 10 stolen bases and a .466 on-base percentage as a sophomore. Defensively, he has only committed four errors in two years (.972 fielding pct.) while collecting 40 assists.
"Matt is a really great defensive outfielder," Alday said. "He can really go get it. He will be in the lineup every game for us."
Murray came on as a surprise last year and earned a starting position in right field. He ranked in the top 10 of the MWC in four offensive categories, and led the Lobos with a .383 batting average (third in MWC). The Albuquerque native drove in 60 runs, scored 58 times and stroked seven homers and 20 doubles.
"Sean, as well as Jeff (Grady), are the team's verbal leaders - they really get the team together," said coach. "They did a tremendous job doing things for us and the players all offseason."
Haymore, who transferred from Eastern Arizona, looks to be the starting left fielder.
"Garrick is a real good contact hitter," said Alday. "He doesn't have a lot of power, but he hits the ball in the gaps and hits line drives. He'll hit some homers, but we're looking mainly just to get him on base. He's a natural infielder, but he's worked real hard in the outfield, and he's improved defensively."
Senior Joe Salas might see some time in the outfield, but he will likely be the designated hitter in order to save his arm for the bullpen. Salas, a 2003 first-team All-MWC honoree, is the team's top returning power hitter after slugging 16 homers last season, good for second in the MWC. An explosive hitter at the plate, Salas ranked in the top 10 of the MWC in eight offensive categories last season, including total bases (second, 158), slugging percentage (third, .664), RBI (56, seventh) and batting (.366, ninth).
The 2004 schedule is a mix of tough non-conference opponents with the always competitive Mountain West Conference slate. The Lobos will play six teams that earned NCAA Tournament berths last season (Nebraska, Arkansas, Texas A&M, New Mexico State, UNLV, Arizona State).
"This is probably one of the toughest schedule's we've ever had," commented Alday. "I don't know how we will be early in the year, I think we'll be pretty competitive, but we do face a lot of good teams right off the bat. The key is to stay positive. We're preparing ourselves for conference play, so we wanted a challenging non-conference schedule to get us ready for the Mountain West."
New Mexico opens the season at home with the four-team Albuquerque Tournament Feb. 20-22. The tournament includes Kent State from the Mid-American Conference, Nebraska from the Big 12 and Northwestern from the Big 10.
The Lobos then travel to College Station, Texas, for the Domino's Pizza Aggie Classic Feb. 27-29. UNM faces a grueling task, playing Arkansas and Texas A&M - two NCAA Regional teams a year ago - three times in as many days.
After the Aggie Classic, UNM hosts UC Santa Barbara for a three-game series March 5-7, before traveling to TCU for a three-game set March 12-14. UNM's final game prior to conference play is March 16 vs. Texas Tech at Isotopes Park. The Lobos and Red Raiders will play each four times during the season, with two games in Albuquerque (March 16, April 20) and two in Lubbock (April 27, May 4).
Other non-conference games throughout the season include two games against intrastate rival New Mexico State (March 23 - Las Cruces; March 30 - Isotopes Park), a road series at Nebraska (April 5-6) and a home date with Arizona State (May 18).
The Lobos' first three series of the MWC season are at home (Utah, San Diego State, BYU), but after a home stretch in which they play 14 of 17 games in Albuquerque, they will play 18 of the next 19 games on the road. The Lobos close the regular season with seven straight home contests. The Mountain West Tournament will be held May 26-29 in Las Vegas.