Stevens: Lobos Open MWC Tournament against UNLV Rebels
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics  
Release:  05/25/2010
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics

May 25, 2010

Lobos at Conoco MWC Championship -- San Diego
Lobos vs. UNLV, 4 p.m. (MT); TCU vs. Utah, 8 p.m. (MT)
TV: All games live on Mountain Sports Network
Radio: All Lobos games live on 101.7 FM The TEAM.
GoLobos.com: GameTracker, stats, recap

Tuesday Games: UNLV 9, BYU 1; Utah 12, SDSU 6

By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/GoLobos.com

Lobo coach Ray Birmingham makes it easy for you to visualize his frustration, to feel his intense desire to pull into UNM's grasp that which teases the tips of his fingers:

A trip to the NCAA Championships.

"It's like that guy crawling out of the desert and that drink of water is right there in front of him. He has to crawl two more inches to get it, but can`t reach it," said Birmingham. "That drink of water keeps escaping me and I'm tired of it."

Of course, Birmingham and his Lobos are not tired of the reaching or putting up the good fight. They are at San Diego this week with six other Mountain West Conference teams reaching for the MWC Championship and the all-important NCAA automatic bid that goes to the victor.

"It's something we really want. It's a step we need to take," said Lobo Adam Courcha, referring to both a MWC title and postseason life.

The Lobos begin their MWC chase at 4 p.m. Wednesday vs. UNLV. The Horned Frogs follow that game with a diamond battle against Utah, the defending tourney champion.

The advantage of a bye was seen Tuesday as No. 5 seed UNLV burned sophomore Tanner Peters in a 9-1 upset over No. 4 Brigham Young. Peters, a second team All-MWC pick led the league with 101 strikeouts and the Reb got nine against the Cougars.

UNLV, which entered the contest averaging eight runs per game, was paced offensively by senior Jarred Frierson, who went 4-for-4 with two runs scored. Hunter Beaty, Brandon Bayardi (three RBI) and Cash Thomas all had two hits for UNLV.

Utah advanced with a 12-6 pounding of San Diego State, the host team for the tourney. Utah got to Aztec ace Addison Reed for seven runs in the fourth inning and rolled past SDSU for the right to play TCU. Reed left after six innings, but only three of eight Ute runs on the board at that point were earned. Utah pounded out another four runs off the SDSU bullpen.

Birmingham sent several messages to his Lobos prior to the 2010 Conoco MWC Championship, but probably the main one was simply to take another step up the MWC ladder.

Do something you haven't yet done! Grasp instead of just reach!

The Lobos go into the five-day event in San Diego as the No. 2 seed behind the No. 1 seed TCU Horned Frogs, the No. 6 ranked team in the nation.

For the Lobos, that's a been-there, done-that sort of thing. The Birmingham Lobos have entered the postseason MWC wars as the No. 2 seed twice before, failed to win the tourney, failed to slip into the NCAA playoffs.

"We are telling the underclassmen to go out and play like it's their last game," said Lobos senior Justin Howard. "We want to go out and do something special because we have the talent and we have the coaching.

"We are looking to kick the door down this time and show everybody what we can do."


The MWC Field
TCU ---- 19-5, 43-11
UNM ---- 14-8, 35-18
SDSU -- 13-11, 28-26
BYU ---- 12-12, 25-29
UNLV -- 11-13, 27-27
Utah --- 10-13, 22-26


No doubt, the Lobos -- and four other MWC teams -- would like to steal the tourney crown from the favored Frogs. In 2009, Utah was the thief and it handed the Utes the automatic NCAA bid. TCU and San Diego State were handed at-large bids. The Lobos were bumped to the sideline for the postseason.

This season several internet sites have handed the Lobos an unofficial at at-large bid into the NCAA playoffs. This is not the NCAA talking.

"We are right where we were last year and right where we were the year before," said Birmingham. " People have us in Tempe (NCAA regionals), but that don`t mean nothing. We need to do this ourselves."

The only sure-fire way to go dancing on the NCAA road to the Omaha World Series is to grab the MWC's automatic bid. It's safe to say that TCU is a lock for at at-large bid. The Lobos probably would slip into that "lock" status by finishing second or third in the MWC tourney.

But what happens if UNM goes 0-2, like last year, and a MWC other than TCU grabs the tourney title? Does the NCAA take three MWC teams again? Or does the NCAA just take the MWC champ and TCU? The pressure of this tourney will pound all non-TCU teams like the Pacific Ocean pounds the San Diego coastline.

Of course, the Lobos' NCAA resume would be strengthened by a strong run in San Diego. It won't be easy.

"This will be a heck of a tournament," said Birmingham. "TCU is a Top Ten team with all kinds of pitching and hitting. Utah is a hot and cold commodity, but when they are hot, they can beat the Yankees.

"San Diego State is loaded and they have Addison Reed, who is as good a pitcher as anybody in the country. BYU is killing the ball and UNLV is a good, solid team. You never know what is going to happen."

The Lobos' No. 2 seed handed UNM a first-round tourney bye, which could be huge. A bye could mean you will miss looking at a team's No. 1 arm -- like UNLV's Peters.

A bye also allows Birmingham to rest one of his top arms. That is key with TCU possibly waiting down the road. If UNM and TCU both win on Wednesday, they would play at 8 p.m. (MT), Thursday. The title game is set for 8 p.m. (MT) Friday with the if-necessary game scheduled for 2 p.m. (MT) on Saturday.

A tumble into the losers' bracket would severely test a team's depth in the bullpen. If UNM or TCU stay in the winners' bracket, a MWC title could come in three games. If UNM or TCU fall into the losers' bracket, they likely would be looking at a five-game path to a MWC title.

The stats acquired through a season of work back up TCU as the No. 1 seed and UNM as the No. 2 seed. TCU and the Lobos are No. 1 or No. 2. in these key MWC categories: hitting, fielding percentage, on-base percentage, runs scored, hits and RBIs.

Senior Justin Howard

TCU has an edge in pitching behind Steven Maxwell (2.93 ERA), Kyle Winkler (3.25) and Matt Purke (3.51). The Frogs have the league's top ERA, have held opponents to the lowest batting average, fewest hits allowed and the Frog arms have registered the most strikeouts.


Justin Howard, NM -- .463
C.J. Cron, Utah -- .418
Chris Juarez, NM -- .414
Brance Rivera, TCU -- .391
B. Meredith, SDSU -- .389
Rafael Neda, NM -- .382


However, the Lobos are solid behind Willy Kesler (3.51 ERA), Kenny Toves (4.08) and Richard Olson (4.19). UNM has the league's top batting average and Birmingham can throw out a dynamic lineup of .300-plus hitters paced by Howard (.463), Chris Juarez (.414) and Rafael Neda (.382).

The Horned Frogs have a lot of pop at the plate and paced the MWC with 85 home runs. The Lobos were last in the league in that power stat at 36, but Birmingham stresses hard contact over go-for-it power. That philosophy is reflected in UNM batters having the fewest strikeouts in the league.

If the Lobos had a chip on their shoulders after getting snubbed by the NCAA in 2008 and 2009, that chip might be bigger in the wake of the All-MWC team which featured only Kelser on the first team. The All-MWC team definitely wasn't pro Lobo. Probably the biggest surprise pushing Howard -- the nation's leading hitter -- onto the second team.

Still, Howard and the Lobos aren't in this thing for individual honors. They want to slip into the NCAA bracket under the name "New Mexico." They get that chance this week in San Diego.

"We're ready and we're excited for this," said Courcha.

Birmingham also is ready to take a drink out of that beckoning cup of symbolic water.

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.