Stevens: Young Lobos Not All That Young On The Mound
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics  
Release:  02/16/2011
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics

Feb. 16, 2011

Lobo Baseball -- 2011 Season Preview

Lobo Baseball -- At Arizona State
Friday: 6:30 p.m. (MT), Lobos at ASU
Saturday: 1 p.m. (MT), Lobos at ASU, doubleheader
Sunday: 12:30 p.m. (MT), Lobos at ASU
GoLobos.com: GameTracker, Recaps, Box Score

By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/GoLobos.com

It's a season in which Lobo baseball coach Ray Birmingham might test his patience more than ever before.

If you have the patience to scroll down New Mexico's 2011 baseball roster looking for a senior, you will see exactly what Birmingham is talking about.

Amazingly, on UNM's 32-man roster there is one senior -- Richard Olson, a hard-throwing, right-hander.

"This year we need patience by myself, patience from my staff and patience from everyone involved with this program," said Birmingham. "These kids are young, but I promise you they are going to be something special and do special things as Lobos. They just need some time to grow up."

There are two other major-league reasons Birmingham, a seasoned barker of the diamond and post-game locker rooms, might have to bite his tongue a few times between innings one and nine.

  • Birmingham will have no returning starters at any position, although shortstop Alex Allbritton was a starter in 2010 at third base.

  • The schedule Birmingham has laid out in front of his Lobo pups is more suited to something you might throw at the New York Yankees -- or maybe the TCU Horned Frogs, the super-loaded team picked to win the Mountain Conference race as the No. 1 preseason pick in the nation.

    So, what's up, Ray? Why you throwing all these UNM pups into the blender?

    "You either have a coach trying to protect his job by winning a whole lot of games, or you have a coach on a mission to get somewhere," said Birmingham, whose 2010 Lobos snapped a 48-year NCAA postseason drought. "We're on a mission. We're trying to get somewhere."

    Birmingham has never been shy about where he wants to take his Lobos -- to the NCAA World Series in Omaha. He got his foot in that NCAA door last year and beat a good Stanford team before falling to Minnesota in extra innings and losing an elimination game to No. 6-ranked Cal State Fullerton.

    The Lobos reached the postseason in 2010 because of a bold schedule and 38 wins. The Lobos were competitive in the 2010 NCAA tourney because their schedule prepared them to be competitive. That preparation is there again to test one of the youngest teams in the nation.


    2011 LOBO ROSTER



    "I could schedule a 40-win season and not come close to making the playoffs," said Birmingham. "Our schedule is the second toughest in the nation (College Baseball 360) and that's what we want. You don't rise to the top level of baseball playing soft.

    "We are trying to prepare young kids for a high level of competition. You don't reach that level by playing directional schools. We`re here to play the best."

    Of course, this type of schedule is a bit of a gamble. It all depends on how these Lobo youngsters mature and come back from the inevitable losses. Here's where the story of UNM baseball 2011 takes a weird twist.

    Drum roll, please -- the strength of the 2011 Lobos is on the mound!

    "I don`t know if a Lobo coach has ever been able to say that," said Birmingham. "I don`t know if that`s ever happened. But this season pitching looks to be our forte and that`s fine with me because that`s what you need to have."

    It`s probably also fine with Birmingham because this Lobo coach has a long history of developing hitters and throwing out a spider web on defense. Birmingham`s Lobos led the nation in hitting in 2009. In 2010, Lobo senior Justin Howard led the nation in hitting and UNM and the Lobos, the top hitting team in the Mountain West Conference, fielded 12 Lobos hitting .300 or better.

    Most of those Lobos are gone for 2011. That`s part of the problem that comes with developing a program off raw talent. Birmingham puts some polish on that talent and the Major League Draft takes a bit out of your roster.

    That`s fine, too. Birmingham wants his Lobos to grab a degree and maybe a cup of coffee or two at the Major League level. He just calls in some more raw talent, pulls out his polishing rags, and gets to work.


    The Lobos took a big hit in losing arms like Willy Kesler and Kenny Toves. But there are some lively arms returning to throw heat, breaking balls -- and lots of strikes. "Our pitching should be our strength," said Birmingham. "This pitching staff will continue to grow and become one of the best in the country. It needs to mature, but their physical ability is unbelievable."

    The pitching staff includes Gabe Aguilar, Oscar Almeida, Steven Florez, Ronnie Galosic, Alexis Garza, Quay Grant, Austin House, Rudy Jaramillo, Cory Maltz, Bobby Mares, Jonathan Mata, Will Mathis, Jake McCasland, Jacob Nelson, Richard Olson, Gera Sanchez and Sam Wilson.

    That's a lot of arms with a variety of pitches. Jaramillo is the top returnee with 66.1 innings pitched in 2010, good for a 5.83 ERA and a 4-2 record. Olson tossed 53.2 innings with a 4.19 ERA and a 4-3 mark. Mares got in 34.1 innings for a 4.46 ERA.

    House, Almeida, Sanchez, Aguilar and Nelson each reached the mound in 2010. They have D-I experience and have worked hard to improve. Birmingham also is looking for quick help from some young arms. Jake McCasland of Farmington is such an arm.

    McCasland had a 1.41 ERA for Piedra Vista High. The 6-foot-2 righty was ranked in the Top 100 prospects in the western U.S. He picked UNM over LSU, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Hawaii.

    "Jake will be big-time special," said Birmingham. "I think he'll be a top draft pick by the time he graduates. He already has college size and he can throw it. He might be going to the plate for us, too. The kid can hit."

    In The Field

    The Lobos are building here -- thanks to graduation and thanks to the pro boys raiding New Mexico's roster. Rafael Neda could have returned behind the plate for UNM and brought back his .362 bat. Neda went pro, as did Matt Honeycutt, who hit .353 in 2010.

    Richard Olson -- Lobos lone senior in 2011

    It would have been nice to build a lineup behind some proven hitters, but Birmingham has to rebuild behind the bat of Allbritton (.301), Jacob Nelson (.378), Ben Woodchick (.305) and John Michael Twichell (.350), who is recovering from an elbow injury.

    Allbritton appears to have locked down the shortstop position to replace Danny Gonzalez, one of UNM`s best-ever defensive shortstops. After that, UNM has a lot of young -- some unproven -- talent biting at the bit to prove they can crack Birmingham's lineup.

    It hurts to lose Neda behind the plate, but not that much. Birmingham expects Mitchell Garver (La Cueva High) to make an immediate impact both in handling the pitching staff and pounding balls offered from other pitching staffs. "Garver will be as good, if not better, than Neda," said Birmingham.

    Nelson has experience and the bat to lock down first base. Birmingham says Nelson needs to keep improving his defense. Kyle Stiner, a transfer from Paradise Valley CC (Ariz.) has the early edge at second base. "He's a player," said Birmingham.

    Over on the hot corner at third, DJ Peterson, one of those young, unproven, freshmen, is the frontrunner. "He'll be a Lobo great when he's through here," said Birmingham.

    The outfield is an open door for Lobos looking for early playing time. Sam Wilson, a 6-foot-1 freshman from Eldorado High, is looking strong in centerfield. Twichell, when healthy, could slide into another spot in the outfield. Trey Porras, Logan Lippert and Quay Grant are three JC transfers, who are using their collegiate experience to separate themselves from some of the first-year Lobo outfielders.

    "We don't have a single returning starter at any spot, but I think this team will rise to a high level," said Birmingham. "You just never know how young kids are going to react and that unknown is something I think about quite a bit.

    "We have a lot of first-year puppies at the D-I level, who have to keep their heads on straight and not worry about anything but playing the game the right way.

    "If they do that, they'll turn into wolves."

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