ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - No one associated with the University of New Mexico baseball team needs reminding of what the team has lost from last season's roster. They're reminded of it every day as they walk into the team clubhouse and batting cages.
Most prominent are posters of first team All-Americans DJ Peterson and Mitch Garver, both of whom will be playing in the minor leagues this spring. Also missing are the other two top hitters from last year's squad, Luke Campbell and Josh Melendez, as well as numerous key pitchers: Sam Wolff, Hobie McClain and Gabe Aguilar chief among them.
Still, there's no denying this year's Lobo squad has talent. That talent just has to prove itself because this is a young team with not a single fourth-year senior. It only has six seniors total, and only two of those, pitcher Josh Walker and outfielder John Pustay, are in their third year in the program.
"We lost our top four hitters," head coach Ray Birmingham said. "We lost a (first round) draft pick. We lost what should have been the Johnny Bench Award winner. We lost Luke Campbell, who was one of the top 25 hitters in the country. We also lost Josh Melendez. So yeah, we're going to have to change things up, but it's time for these other guys to do what they're capable of doing."
Only three other players, left-handed pitcher Alex Estrella, catcher Alex Real and first baseman Ryan Padilla, are in their third year in the program. That puts more pressure on players like Real to produce, who is tasked with the unenviable job of replacing Garver behind the plate.
"We have the same expectations as always and the goal is Omaha," said Real, whose eight home runs last season leads all returners in the Mountain West. "(Garver) is one of the Lobo greats. I tried to learn from him last year and the year before. I don't really look at it as trying to meet what he did for Lobo baseball. I'm just trying to do the best I can and be solid like he was back there."
That also forces young players who were key contributers to last season's squad to step up their game. Players like sophomore second baseman Sam Haggerty, who led the MW last season with 47 walks last season on his way to being named Co-Freshman of the Year in the MW and a Freshman All-American.
"The expectations are going to be higher (as a sophomore)," he said. "But I think I'm up to the challenge, though. I'm excited for it, and I'm just ready to go."
UNM will also be counting on big things from sophomore righty Drew Bridges, a converted infielder who was one of the team's best pitchers during the middle part of the season in 2013.
"Coming into this fall and focusing on pitching full time has helped," he said. "I put more pressure on myself than I get from anybody else. I have to learn how to keep strong mentally and just go back to competing. Whoever competes the hardest tends to be successful."
But perhaps no player is under as much pressure as Walker, who became the program's first pitcher ever to earn Preseason All-America honors back in December. He currently owns the highest winning percentage of all time (.826, 19-4) and with eight wins will tie the record for most wins in a career with 27. Oh and for good measure, he's also seventh in program history in saves.
When asked for what his expectations were for Walker this season, Birmingham was succicnt and to the point.
"To beat everybody," he said. "Josh is a New Mexico kid that I'm proud of. He's the first pitcher in Lobo history to be a Preseason All-American. We have a whole wall full of hitters. I want a wall full of pitchers, too. If we have a whole wall full of pitchers then that means we're going to Omaha, and Josh Walker is the kind of guy you need to have to go to Omaha."
To borrow a cliche, there's no denying that youth will be served for the Lobos in 2014, but with the pieces returning no one should be discounting this team from making a fifth straight NCAA regional.
"We lost a couple of big bats from last year," Real said, "but I think the pitching has also really improved. I think we're going to be good. Our lineup will be really good as always. Coach Birmingham always makes that a priority. But I also think our pitching will really step up."
Haggerty agreed this team will be different than in years past, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
"We're going to play a little bit different style of baseball this year," he said. "We're probably going to lay down a few more bunts and play with a little more speed. You lose a guy like DJ or Garver or Luke Campbell and you have to adjust how you play the game a little bit."
Birmingham was very frank in his depiction of his team, but he remainds optimistic of the Lobos' chances for success in 2014.
"They all can hit," he said referring to his lineup this year. "The biggest thing for this team is like in 2011 ... Once they get their experience, I think they're going to be pretty good. This team, this year, is 24 underclassmen. You can't practice experience. Experience is just experience. So we'll do like we always do at Lobo Baseball. Everybody is going to get in the game and everybody is going to get in the game when it counts. So you better get it or we're going to lose. And I hate that word."
UNM opens its season on the road at the University of San Diego next Friday, Feb. 14 for three games, stops for a game at Arizona St. and then has its home opener against Northern Ilinois on Friday, Feb. 21 at 4 p.m. in the Lobo Invite.
Fans are reminded that the Lobo Pride Pass is on sale now. For just $50 fans can gain entry to all home Lobo baseball and softball games this season. You can purchase one online here, by visiting the Lobo Ticket Office in The Pit or by calling the ticket office at 925-LOBO.