Feb. 18, 2009
Up Next For Lobo Baseball
Games #1-4 vs. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
Friday, Feb. 20 3 p.m. (MST)
Saturday, Feb. 21 12 p.m. (MST; DH)
Sunday, Feb. 22 12 p.m. (MST)
Isotopes Park Albuquerque, N.M.
Live Stats, Audio and Video Streaming: Links available on GoLobos.com.
Radio: All Lobo home baseball games will be broadcast on KDEF 1150 AM. Henry Tafoya will call the play-by-play.
Against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi: The Lobos will host the Islanders for the second time in the short series history. UNM is 3-0 vs. TAMU-CC. The Islanders came to Albuquerque in 2003 for a three-game series.
Up Next: The Lobos head to Lubbock, Texas for a 2-game midweek series against Texas Tech on Feb. 24-25. UNM returns home next weekend for a four-game series with Northern Colorado.
LOBO BASEBALL QUICK HITS
Lobos Getting Votes ... There is no more flying under the radar for the Lobo baseball team. Collegiate Baseball newspaper gave UNM votes in its preseason Top 40 poll, putting the Lobos just outside of the Top 40.
Lobos Announce 2009 Captains ... Six Lobos will serve as team captains in 2009 - Kevin Atkinson, Mike Brownstein, Clinton Cox, Daniel Grubbs, Dane Hamilton and Max Willett. Atkinson, Brownstein and Cox are three of the team's five returning all-MWC players from 2008. Willett is the only junior in the group after earning a medical hardship for the 2008 season.
Preseason All-MWC ... Four Lobos were named to the 2009 MWC Preseason Team - Kevin Atkinson, Mike Brownstein, Brian Cavazos-Galvez and Rafael Neda. UNM was picked third in the preseason coaches poll.
Brooks Wallace Watch List ... Brian Cavazos-Galvez and Rafael Neda have been named to the 2009 Brooks Wallace Award Watch List. The Brooks Wallace Award is given to the top player in collegiate baseball.
2009 New Mexico Baseball Season Preview
By Richard Stevens and Laura Rasmussen -- GoLobos.com
You can't exactly say the mindset of Lobos coach Ray Birmingham has changed. He came to New Mexico a season ago expecting to surprise people and win baseball games with fundamental skills and a junkyard dog attitude that nobody is tougher than Lobos on the diamond.
But there were holes in the 2007-08 lineup and there were lingering doubts in some of Birmingham's first-year Lobos. "They didn't all believe they were good enough," said Birmingham. "Sometimes that hurt us. We didn't really have a lot last year. We had to do some scrambling, especially on the mound.
"We cut them some slack last year because we had no choice. There is a choice this year. I know we're going to get knocked down a few times, but we're going to get right back up and knock some people down, too. We're going to play hard, play tough, play mean.
"I like hard-nosed, tough guys, who believe in blue-collar ethics and fundamental baseball. That's the kind of guys who are going to be on the field playing this year. If you play scared, you don't play for me."
One thing about Coach Birmingham is he knows what it takes to win baseball games. He came to New Mexico after 18 seasons at New Mexico Junior College in Hobbs where he posted an amazing 765-255-2 record that included a national championship and a national runner-up trophy. He won 80 percent of his games as a Thunderbird after the 2000 season, and brings the same winning philosophies to his Lobos.
One of his philosophies is that a team should join hands and hearts in a common cause, in a common belief. Birmingham believes that a group of united Lobos can make it to the NCAA Tournament and go all the way to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
"I believe when you have good people committed to a common cause, you can overcome tremendous odds," he said. "That pride factor at New Mexico is going to be a huge factor for us. It's an intangible that helps you to win. We're building a program here, but we're also building a culture with a background of basic values."
Birmingham's first season as a Lobo showed a significant jump in improvement on the field. The coach inherited a team that went 28-30 and 12-12 in league play. His 2008 Lobos went 34-25 and 16-8 to tie for second place in the Mountain West. The 34 wins ranks seventh in the program's history and tied for the most wins since 2003. The Lobos took the No. 2 seed into the MWC Tournament, only the third time in league history that UNM has been one of the top two seeds.
The Lobos made their first-ever appearance in a MWC Championship Game and were one win away from reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1962.
PLAYING FOR 1962
Birmingham likes to carry a theme into a season. Last year, the Lobos dedicated their season to the men and women serving the U.S. military. This season, the Lobos are looking back at the past and trying to make it a consistent part of the future. "We plan to get to Omaha (College World Series)," said Birmingham. "But first we have to get back to the regionals."
The last time a University of New Mexico team played in an NCAA game was 1962. That was 47 years ago. A Lobo who played in that game would be almost 70-years-old. Birmingham thinks that is too long to wait.
"We're a young team, but we're not going to sit around and wait," he said. "One of the things that will take getting to Omaha is changing the mindset around here. The mindset prior to Paul Krebs (UNM Vice President of Athletes) getting here was that some of the programs existed just for the sake of existing.
"In baseball, we want to excel. The kids were hungry to win last year, but I'm not sure all of them knew how to win. We're hungry again this year and we know how to win. We still have some strides to make in the program, but this season we are more set."
Every team loses key players, but probably the spot you least want to see attrition is on the mound. The Lobos lost their three top starters from 2008 in Bobby LaFromboise, Stephen Smith and Jacob Norton. But Birmingham likes his replacements.
"Losing three starters is tough," he said. "We're okay in the bullpen, but we still needed some immediate help. The tough thing with college ball is that when you bring in quality pitching, you have to hope the pros don't snatch them away. We have a lot of arms now, but we have to pull things together."
Ryan Escarcega (RHP), Travis Dirk (RHP) and Kenny Toves (LHP) look to be UNM's top starters going into the season. Dirk is a 6-4 junior and Toves is a 6-3 sophomore. Both junior college transfers can throw it hard and back up their fastball with some breaking stuff. The Lobos also will get starts from Bobby Moore (LHP) and Edwin Carl (RHP). Moore is a senior from Moriarty High and Carl, a junior from Farmington's Piedra Vista High, comes in from Eastern Arizona College. Escarcega, a junior out of Albuquerque's West Mesa High, made great strides over the summer and fall to push his way into a starting spot.
"Our problem is we have no Division I experience on the mound," said Birmingham. "What's cool is that three of the starters (Escarcega, Carl, Moore) are from New Mexico and we have a closer (Clinton Cox), who grew up in Lovington.
"We have good arms in New Mexico and if we can keep New Mexico kids in New Mexico, that will help this program."
One starter the Lobos lost midseason last year to a variety of injuries is Willy Kesler. Kesler won all four games he started for the Lobos in 2008, posting a 1.90 ERA over 23.2 innings, before being sidelined after an emergency appendectomy and Tommy John surgery. Kesler earned a medical hardship and is expected back on the mound this spring.
The Lobos' bullpen looks solid behind Daniel Grubbs and Cox. Cox saw action in 26 games in 2008 and produced a 3.86 ERA. Grubbs threw in 19 games with a 5.64 ERA. The Lobos also return Will Kerr, who threw in 18 games, and John Hesketh, who tossed in 21 games. Kerr and Hesketh were primarily mid-week starters for the Lobos in 2008. UNM also is expecting quality relief from freshmen Gabe Aguilar (LHP) and Rudy Jaramillo (LHP) as well as Brett Haggerty, who took a redshirt last year and converted solely to pitching from catching. Senior Brandon Hewett adds to the relief options, appearing in 14 games in 2008 before having shoulder surgery.
"With some kids, the mental side of the game changes when the lights turn on and it counts," said Birmingham. "We have some young arms, but we tell them, 'It's not the end of the world, throw the ball and get going.'"
Birmingham also said he is putting a little pressure on his pitching coach, Chad Tidwell, this season. "Chad informed me that we're going to have a pitching staff that's going to be under a five (ERA)," said Birmingham. "I'm going to hold him to it."
The big loss to the infield is shortstop Scott Gracey, who left the program to chase his dreams at the pro level. That's a hole both defensively and at the plate. The heir apparent at short is Daniel Gonzalez, an all-conference player from El Paso Community College. "He has big potential," said Birmingham. "He just needs to learn the field is the same size at the Division I level that it is a the junior college level."
The Lobos are more than solid at first base behind Kevin Atkinson, who hit .333 last season with nine homers. "He hits the ball a ton," said Birmingham of the second team All-MWC player from 2008.
Senior Dane Hamilton has the edge at third base. He hit .295 last season and Birmingham said he would like to see Hamilton's numbers at the plate improve. Mike Brownstein hit .350 at second base and was another second team All-MWC pick. "He had a spectacular year," said Birmingham of the senior.
"We don't have much depth at short or third," said Birmingham. "If we stay away from injuries, our infield has a chance to be pretty good."
The Lobos have one of the more promising young catchers in the nation in sophomore Rafael Neda, who was named the 2008 MWC Freshman of The Year. He also grabbed four Freshman All-America honors last season. He is the sixth Lobo freshman in the program's history to be named to a Freshman All-America team. He hit .323 last season.
"Rafael is built like a brick house," said Birmingham. "I remember one game last year a senior got in his face at the plate and he got right back in the guy's face. I wanted to hug him."
Neda's backup is junior Adam Courcha. "He has the best release and the strongest arm for a catcher that I've ever seen," Birmingham said of Courcha, who hit .244 last year playing primarily in the outfield for the injured Max Willett. Behind Neda and Courcha, freshman Travis Haguewood brings catching potential.
If there is a star in the Lobos' outfield, it just might be right fielder Brian Cavazos-Galvez, who hit .367 last season with 11 home runs, 77 hits and 55 RBI. "This kid has the ability to be playing on TV some day," said Birmingham. "We just have to get him to relax."
In centerfield should be Cameron Monger, a transfer from Howard College with good speed, but someone Birmingham says needs to keep the spot with improved hitting. Redshirt junior Max Willett should see time in the outfield after missing the majority of 2008 with a wrist injury. Dan Hayduk, a transfer from Burlington County College in New Jersey, has some power at the plate and should see some time on the grass.
If Monger bumps Willett and Hayduk out of center, they'll move over to left field and battle Justin Howard for that spot. Howard also could see time at first base. Rounding out the outfield options are transfers Ryan Honeycutt, Chris Juarez and Cameron Smith.
"I like what we have," Birmingham said of his talent. "Now we have to go out there and focus on what we have to do and where we plan to go."
This year the Lobos plan to go back -- back to 1962 and make it part of their future in 2009.
Part of Birmingham's vision to reach Omaha is to play College World Series caliber teams in the regular season. Among the competition for the Lobos in 2009 are Pac-10 powerhouses Stanford and Arizona. UNM also meets up with Texas A&M, who sits atop the Baseball America preseason poll, as well Nebraska and Texas Tech, who look to counter the Lobo offense with impressive pitching. The Lobos face Texas A&M, Arizona, Nebraska and Stanford on the road. The Lobos also travel to Fort Worth to seek revenge against TCU, April 3-5, while San Diego State and top MLB prospect Stephen Strasburg visit Albuquerque, April 17-19. The Lobos were picked third in the 2009 Mountain West Conference preseason poll behind TCU and San Diego State, respectively.