ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - At first glance, the 2014 UNM baseball season might look like a disappointment. After all, the Lobos' four-year string of making an NCAA regional was snapped. But if you dig a little deeper past the surface, you'll realize just what a great season it really was.
The Lobos recorded 37 wins for the third straight season, which is tied for the fourth most in program history. Their 15 wins on the road was also the fourth most in a single season in the school's history. Most importantly, though, is the fact that UNM won a share of the Mountain West regular season title for the third straight season. UNM is one of just five schools in the entire nation that can claim at least a share of a regular-season conference title in each of the last three seasons.
UNM managed all this despite having to replace a pair of All-Americans in DJ Peterson and Mitch Garver, two starting outfielders in Josh Melendez and Luke Campbell, their starting third baseman/shortstop in Alex Allbritton, their Friday-night starter in Sam Wolff, and their top two arms from the bullpen in Gabe Aguilar and Hobie McClain. Coming into the season, the entire roster had only 19 years of Division I experience, and eight of those belonged to the four third-year players on the squad: Josh Walker, John Pustay, Alex Real and Ryan Padilla.
"It was a great year," UNM head coach Ray Birmingham said. "The reason I say that is that it was a rebuilding year with so many young people and so many things happening. We were such a young club and everyone else in the league has veterans. ... I told the team all fall and early this spring that everybody is looking for them. We've been the team to beat in this league for a while and now we have a big target on our back. Every team in the league had a veteran ballclub, and truly, for most of the season we had seven or eight freshmen or sophomores on the field."
The Lobos also had to deal with their share of injuries. Drew Bridges, who began the season as UNM's Friday-night starter, missed six starts with shoulder fatigue. Starting shortstop Jared Holley missed 17 games late in the season with hamstring issues. And even Mountain West Freshman of the Year Danny Collier missed 15 games, also with a hamstring injury.
"If you told me in January that we'd have this young club, we'd lose your starting shortstop for a lot of conference play, you're going to lose your Friday-night starter for a lot of conference play, I would have said it's going to be a long season," Birmingham said. "Instead, those kids (won another championship). That's a big deal."
It is a big deal, because championships are becoming expected now at UNM. The Lobos have four straight championship seasons and five championships total in the last four years: 2011 MW Tournament, 2012 regular season and tournament, 2013 regular season and 2014 regular season. No other team in the Mountain West can claim more than two in that span.
"After the first (championship), there was a pile up on the mound that could have reached halfway up the light poles," said Birmingham. "The second one was kind of a luke warm pile up. The next one they kind of high-fived each other. This one was just handshakes. We've become a program with a lot of expectations.
"Was it a good year? Heck yeah. A lot of teams would've liked to have had the year we had. Was it disappointing at the end? Absolutely. But I prefer to look at it in a positive light."
The disappointment came after back-to-back losses to start the Mountain West Tournament. That dropped the Lobos' RPI out of at-large range, and cost them a trip to their fifth straight regional.
"The difference in the tournament was defense," Birmingham said. "We had two bad innings in two days and it cost us. The sad thing is it erased 30 games of outstanding championship play, just like it didn't happen. And we didn't get into the NCAAs because of it."
Despite their season ending prematurely, there was still plenty for the Lobos to celebrate in 2014 in addition to their conference championship.
The team was led by senior outfielder Chase Harris, who led the team in virtually every major offensive category: batting average, hits, RBIs, triples, home runs, slugging, on-base percentage and total bases. The categories he wasn't first in -- steals, doubles and runs -- he was second. Simply put, he carried the offense at tiems. He drove in or scored 101 of UNM's 370 runs as College Sports Madness named him a fourth team All-American.
Sophomore Sam Haggerty earned All-Mountain West first team accolades at shortstop after filling in for Holley there for the majority of the conference campaign. He, along with Holley, were named to the watch list for the Brooks Wallace Award, which is given annually to the best shortstop in the nation. He also had success off the field as he was named a Capital One/CoSIDA Academic All-American, the first such for the program since 2006.
Catcher Alex Real earned All-Mountain West first team honors as well, was named a semifinalist for the Johnny Bench Award and finished third in the nation with 25 doubles, while senior outfielder/designated hitter John Pustay finally enjoyed a healthy season and responded with a .324 average, 11 doubles and 37 RBIs.
On the mound the Lobos posted their lowest ERA (4.23) in 37 years under second-year pitching coach Dan Spencer. It's the eighth lowest team ERA in program history, and while teams from the SEC might scoff at an ERA like that, when you play your games a mile above sea level it is a major accomplishment. Despite pitching 116 more innings than the 1977 club, the team allowed just 38 more runs to become the first Lobo squad since then to allow fewer than 300 runs in a season (293).
Leading the pitching staff were starters Josh Walker (7-5, 3.87, 107.0 IP) and Colton Thomson (6-6, 3.68, 65 Ks, 88.0 IP). Walker earned All-Mountain West second team honors as he fell one victory short of both the UNM and MW career records for wins with 26.
The real strength of the staff, though, was the bullpen, which was flat out dominant. UNM was 31-0 when leading after the sixth and 33-0 when leading after the eighth. It doesn't get any better than that. The Lobo bullpen combined to post a 3.93 ERA and a school-record 16 saves. UNM relievers went 16-5 and issued just 86 walks in 220.0 innings.
"It helped having a lot of different guys that coach (Spencer) could call on," closer Victor Sanchez said. "It gave guys in the bullpen a lot of confidence knowing that anybody could go in there, get the job done and keep us in the lead."
Most of that success was due to a quartet of pitchers, each of whom was in their first or second year in the program.
Sanchez, a redshirt sophomore, inherited the closer role a month into the season and was lights out. He finished the year 4-1 with a 2.33 ERA, 10 saves and 33 strikeouts in 22 appearances spanning 38.1 innings. The saves mark was the second most a Lobo has ever had in one season, one shy of the record Ed Bartholomew set in 1985.
Sanchez was named to the watch list for both the Gregg Olson Award (Breakout Player of the Yaer) and the Stopper of the Year (Best Relief Pitcher). Opponents hit just .175 off him as he came off a disappointing 2013 season and anchored the late-inning work for UNM .
"After last year I wasn't sure what my role would be, or even if I'd make the team this year," he said. "I didn't take any success for granted. Every time I went out there I treated it like it could be my last appearance, and I gave it my all. I wanted to pitch like there was no tomorrow. It was really helpful to have some struggles in the past so I knew what it would take to be succesful and get people out."
Junior transfer Jake Cole led the team with 39.0 innings out of the pen, striking out 38, which was the second most on the entire team, behind only Thomson. He finished 3-1 with a 3.67 ERA and three saves of his own while holding opponents to a .265 batting average.
No pitcher made more appearances this season for UNM, though, than sophomore Taylor Duree. The righty out of Sandia HS in Albuquerque pitched in 29 games, tied for fourth most in a season in school history, and went 2-0. He posted a 3.55 ERA with one save and 24 strikeouts in 33.0 innings.
The last member of the quartet is the only lefty of the group: freshman Carson Schneider, also formerly of Sandia HS. The 6-foot-2 southpaw made 24 appearances and recorded a 3.81 ERA. He went 2-1 with one save while issuing just four walks in 26.0 innings.
Schneider was one of just several freshman to enjoy success in year one as a Lobo.
In addition to being named the top freshman in the MW, Collier hit .353, scored 20 runs and drove in 20 while batting mostly first or second in the lineup. Andre Vigil struggled at times defensively at third base but still hit .311 and drove in 30 runs. Jack Zoellner started 33 games and hit .301 with a pair of home runs, and Lane Milligan hit .333 in 87 at bats over 20 starts at DH and behind the plate. Meanwhile, junior transfer Aaron Siple hit .290 and played excellent defense in center field.
Lobo fans responded to the young squad and thronged to Lobo Field in record numbers. During UNM's first homestand a record three-day crowd of 2,965 came out, and over 23,000 fans walked through the gates at Lobo Field over the course of the season.
"I think the fans were super to the team this year," Birmingham said. "They're really starting to get into it."
UNM will need to replace a couple of key pieces heading into 2015, namely Harris, Pustay and Walker, and might lose a couple more to the draft in Real and Thomson, but the future remains bright for the Lobos, and a fifth straight championship season could be in the making next year.