Stevens: The Lobos' Climb Toward The Mountaintop Starts At Texas
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics  
Release:  02/18/2010
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics

Feb. 17, 2010

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Lobos baseball at University of Texas
2 p.m. Friday; 1 p.m. Saturday; noon Sunday
Where: UFCU Disch Field, Austin Texas
Video: Live streaming through All-Access

Radio: 101.7 The TEAM KQTM-FM / Lobo Radio Network
Online: Recap, live stats at GoLobos.com

By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com

You are on a high mountain pass with Lobo coach Ray Birmingham. You walk over to a nasty ledge and look down - way down. You see a river of fiery lava. You see a short step and a long drop.

You turn to Birmingham and you ask, "What's up, coach?"

Birmingham walks over and peers over the ledge. "Oh," he says. "I didn't notice that. Don't worry about it. We're going another way." He points to the mountain's top.

The mountaintop is the direction and the destination on Birmingham's mind and in his heart. For Birmingham, there is no drop, no down, no doubts. He has pointed his nose and his program toward a high horizon and each year he has cut down the distance between the summit and his Lobos.

He plans to make upward strides again in 2010. That's why his Lobos are heading toward Austin, Texas, to battle the No. 1 college team in America and arguably the best college program over the past 25 years.

In a way, you could look at a visit to No. 1 Texas as a look down into that hot lava. These Longhorns are loaded. Birmingham sees it as a cool opportunity.

"If you are a coach trying to make it look like you are having a great season with a lot of Ws (wins), you don't want to go where we're going to go," said Birmingham. "You sure don't want to go to Texas.

"I could schedule 40 wins here. But we're not trying to impress people with a flashy record. We want to go to the mountaintop."

The mountaintop for most baseball folks is Omaha, Neb., where they roll out the baseballs and play for a national title. There are a few other stops along the way that Birmingham would like to make.

First, he wants to step onto that Yellow Brick Road that leads to Omaha - the NCAA playoffs. He also would like to tuck a Mountain West Conference title into his Lobos' bat bags. That's a tall order in itself. TCU is Top 20 this year. San Diego State is no slouch.


"If we get knocked down, no big deal. We'll get back up. You can't climb a mountain, if you're afraid you might scrape a knee."
Coach Ray Birmingham on New Mexico's visit to No. 1 Texas

Birmingham's philosophy is an old adage: To be the best, you play the best. But do you do it right out of the 2010 gate?

"Why wait?" said Birmingham of his Friday thru Sunday visit to the heart of Texas. "I want my kids to go to Texas and see what it's all about at Texas. We need to find out how close we are and what we need to do to get where they're at.

"This also is a David and Goliath thing. David is bringing a slingshot and some rocks and I think he has a chance. We don't have anything to lose."

Said junior catcher Rafael Neda: "The experience of playing against the No. 1 team in the nation isn't something you can find just anyplace."

Playing the role of David, jumping into the fire, isn't something new to Birmingham's Lobos. He tested them in 2009 with a visit to College Station to play the No. 3 ranked Texas A&M Aggies. The Lobos came back with two wins and shot into national polls.

The difference? Those games at Texas A&M were played in March. The Lobos had almost 20 games under their belts. Birmingham's pups of 2010 open the gates and are staring at arguably/probably the best pitching staff in college ball.

"Augie (Texas coach Augie Garrido) says this is his best pitching staff he's had since he's been at Texas," said Birmingham. "Some people say it's Texas' best pitching staff ever. So, how do we stack up? I don't want to sit back and wonder. I want to know, so let's get after it."

Said Lobo Ryan Honeycutt: "We've watched them on TV and they pitch the heck out of it. If you swing at just anything, they'll pick you apart. They are good."

The Longhorn arms are talented and NCAA tested. Taylor Jungmann, a righty, went 3-0 in the College World Series striking out 15 in 15.1 innings. He made the All-Tournament team. Brandon Workman threw a no-hitter last season. Austin Dicharry went 8-2 in 2009 and was named to a freshmen all-america team.

"Bring `em on," said Lobo Adam Courcha. "That's our mentality this season and that's the mentality of our program. There are people in front of us that we want to catch and Texas is one of them. We aren't going in there just to look at `em. We're coming in to play baseball.

"We're fixing to do things that New Mexico hasn't seen in a while."

One thing the Lobos haven't seen in a while is an invite to the NCAA Tournament. UNM's last walk down that path came in 1962. The 2009 Lobos danced around an invite, but missed by a couple of hits, a couple of runs, a couple of wins.

The road to a MWC title probably has to go through TCU, but the MWC likely is looking at two at-large bids in 2010. The key to UNM's season is pretty much what it has always been - pitching.

Lobo catcher Rafael Neda

"We can hit and we can play defense," said Birmingham. "Pitching has been the problem at UNM. It's not the altitude. It's not Isotopes Park. We just have to do a better job of recruiting pitchers and do a better job of developing pitchers.

"We have some young, good arms this year. This pitching staff is the best I've had. The only thing we lack is a couple of kids to step up and be the bulldog. They are there. They just have to decide to step up."

Some of those Lobo candidates to be Bulldogs are Rudy Jaramillo, Gabe Aguilar, and Edwin Carl.

Birmingham lost some hot bats from the 2009 team that went 37-20 and 15-8 (2nd) in the Mountain West. Gone are Mike Brownstein (.414), Brian Cavazos-Galvez (.392) and Kevin Atkinson (.400) off a UNM team that led the nation in hitting. He returns Rafael Neda (.415), Honeycutt (.406), Max Willett (.355) and Justin Howard (.309).

"I think we are going to hit, and hit better than the team that led the country in hitting last year. I believe that," said Birmingham. "We just have to grow some sharp teeth = get mean, get tough, get scrappy."

At Texas, the Lobos likely will need a special combination of mean arms and scrappy bats.

"If we get knocked down, no big deal," said Birmingham. "We'll get back up. You can't climb a mountain, if you're afraid you might scrape a knee."

Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former Associate Sports Editor and sports columnist for The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at rstevens50@comcast.net.