March 16, 2011
Lobo Baseball - On The Mountain West Road
Where: Lobos at San Diego State - Tony Gwynn Stadium
When: 7 p.m. (MT), Friday; 7 p.m. (MT) Saturday; 2 p.m. (MT), Sunday
GoLobos.com: Recap, Stats
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer / GoLobos.com
In a twist that both pleases and frustrates Lobo coach Ray Birmingham, his 2011 New Mexico Lobos are a team noted for its pitching. Which is a good thing.
Now, if the Lobos can just spice up that good mound work with what has been a national eye-turner since Birmingham took over the program - the Lobo hitting.
"Our pitching and our defense has looked pretty good," said Birmingham. "We just need to start doing a better job at the plate. But the key here, and anywhere, really, is to have a pitching staff that can hold up against good hitting. That's part of what we are trying to do here."
The ultimate goal for Birmingham's Lobos is to become a Top 25 program and a consistent name on the NCAA bracket. The Lobos charged into the NCAA field last season for the program's first cup of NCAA coffee in 48 years.
The young Lobos stand 3-13 heading into the Mountain West Conference opener at San Diego State - a three-game series. A tough schedule has taken a bite out of the Lobos. It also had gouged deep into the Aztecs, who also stand 3-13.
SDSU coach Tony Gwynn has been just as tough on his young pups throwing them at No. 4 Vanderbilt, No. 5 UCLA, No. 3 Oklahoma, No. 14 California and No. 15 Arkansas.
"I could have scheduled us a 13-3 record and Tony could have done that at San Diego State," said Birmingham. "That's not what this team needs. We aren't just playing for a record. We are playing to get better and to learn what it takes to play at the top level.
"We walked out of Arizona State and Oklahoma State without a win, but we felt good about our team and our potential. If you can throw against Oklahoma State hitters and get outs, then you have a chance to do that all year long."
The Lobos dropped three in Stillwater, Okla., but the scores were more than respectable: 3-2, 4-3 (11) and 2-0. The Lobo pitching did well against some quality bats and the Lobo hitters got to face - and learn from - some quality arms.
UNLV -- 0-0 -- 16-3
TCU -- 0-0 -- 10-5
BYU -- 0-0 -- 8-7
Air Force -- 0-0 -- 6-9
Utah -- 0-0 -- 4-7
Lobos -- 0-0 -- 3-13
San Diego St -- 0-0 -- 3-13
The Lobos take a .250 hitting average to San Diego State with only Mitchell Garver (.300) and Kyle Stiner (.311) hitting .300 or better among Lobos with more than 40 at-bats. The Lobos have one home run in 537 at-bats.
Mares has gone 17-plus innings without yielding an earned run. "I've been throwing good, but my defense has played well," said Mares. "I tip my hat to them.
"I think all the traveling early took its toll on us and I don't think we've gotten many break. We have some young guys who have really done well for us. We have one senior on the pitching staff and you can see that we are building a pitching staff and I think we're going to be pretty good."
The Lobos earned an at-large bid to the 2010 NCAA postseason party, so the record does matter and it would be helpful for UNM to win this series. The NCAA awards an automatic bid to the MWC tourney champ. That diamond war will be staged May 24-28 in San Diego.
Until then, both the Aztecs and the Lobos are hungry for a few wins as the MWC regular-season opens. TCU, a preseason No. 1 pick in one national poll, is expected to win its sixth consecutive MWC title prior to leaving the conference. The Frogs received all 16 first-place votes in the MWC poll. BYU was picked to finish second followed by SDSU, New Mexico, UNLV, Utah and Air Force.
TCU returns its entire starting rotation and seven position players from last year's 54-14 team, which finished No. 3 in the final polls and reached the 2010 College World Series semis.
"TCU is the top dog, but it's going to be a fight," said Birmingham. The Horned Frogs are 10-5 at this point with UNLV on fire at 16-3 - all non-conference games. TCU play at UNLV on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
"It's a totally different season," said UNM's Mares. "You can throw what ever happened before out the window. We're concentrating on getting that conference championship."
Of course, there are a few things Birmingham would like to throw out the window, including a few close losses. But one thing Birmingham hopes his young Lobos carry into the MWC season is the lessons learned.
"It's important we stay patient, gain experience from games played, and strive to play the game the right way," said Birmingham.
"We are building a program and if we have to take some hits this year, so be it, but I like this team. We're a good team and we have just as much talent as last year, but we are a lot younger. We need to get better and be playing well late."