First-Place Lobos Flying Under the Radar
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics  
Release:  04/15/2014

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Picture a major college baseball team with a 27-11-1 record and is in first place in its conference, which has three teams projected to make the NCAAs. (And speaking of the NCAAs, this team has advanced to a regional in each of the last four seasons -- one of just 18 programs that can make that claim.)

This team’s RPI is currently a very respectable 49th, it is ranked ninth in the nation in batting, leads the nation in hits, currently owns its best team ERA in 38 years, owns five top-60 RPI wins and is 12-8 against the RPI top-100.

What if you discovered this same team was managing all this despite losing three of the top 25 hitters in the nation from last season, both of the conference Co-Players of the Year from the last two seasons, the No. 12 overall selection in the 2013 MLB Draft, a school-record seven total draft picks and came into the season with the entire roster owning just 19 seasons of Division I experience?

Now picture one last thing: this team is not ranked in any major college baseball poll.

Seems incredible, right?

Well that’s the position the University of New Mexico finds itself in: playing well extremely well but receiving virtually no attention from the national media.

But you know what? The team is quite comfortable with that.

"It's nice to be ranked and all that, but we don't mind going in and being an underdog anywhere," senior right fielder Chase Harris said. "Everything will sort itself out at the end of the year. The goal here is to win the Mountain West and get to a regional."

Harris has started all 39 games for UNM in right field and is very quietly having one of the better seasons in the nation. He is fourth in the NCAA in both hits (62) and RBIs (45). He’s also 15th in RBIs per game (1.15) and 17th in total bases (90). He’s hitting .365 with five doubles, four triples and five home runs. He has been everything the Lobos needed him to be this year. He moved from batting leadoff in 2013 to the No. 3 spot this season after UNM lost Co-Mountain West Players of the Year DJ Peterson and Mitch Garver.

Harris isn’t doing it alone, though. Alex Real, who is on the Johnny Bench Award watch list, is hitting a career best .331 and ranks third in the nation with 16 doubles. 2013 Freshman All-American Sam Haggerty continues to play well, hitting .321 and earning Mountain West Player of the Week honors after hitting .500 (11-for-22) as UNM went 5-0 last week.

Then there are the youngsters. Not only does the Lobos’ 33-man roster have just 19 letters of experience, but it’s also true that the Lobos don’t have a single fourth-year player and have just four third-year players: Real, Ryan Padilla, John Pustay and Josh Walker. It should be no surprise then that the Lobos would not be in first place in the Mountain West without contributions from first-year players. In fact, of UNM’s top seven hitters Harris is the only senior.

"This team is young and scrappy," head coach Ray Birmingham said. "We lost Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle and Nolan Ryan from last year. They're all gone, so these guys have done a super job of battling and putting themselves into first place."

Walk-on Danny Collier out of Sandia HS in Albuquerque is having a season worthy of a Freshman All-American. He’s second on the team with a .342 batting average, has batted mostly leadoff the past month (during which time UNM is 10-3) and has reached base safely in all of his 28 starts.

"Collier has done a great job coming in at the top of the order," Harris said. "Talk about a kid that understands his role and what type of hitter he is. He never tries to do too much. He gets on base and scores runs for us."

Meanwhile, freshman third baseman Andre Vigil is fourth on the team with a .324 batting average, but he is dominating Mountain West play. In conference games he is leading the entire Mountain West with a .438 average and, despite playing as many as five fewer games than others in the conference, ranks tied for fourth with 14 RBIs.

"Vigil has been great for us, especially in conference play," said Harris. "It seems like every time he comes up there are guys on base and two outs and he comes through for us. He's not trying to do too much either. I see him making adjustments during at bats, and he's keeping it simple in his approach."

The Lobos’ .313 average is currently ninth in the nation, and if they maintain that spot it will be the fifth time in seven years under Birmingham that UNM will finish with a top-10 batting average.

"Some people would look at us and say we're rebuilding, but the way these guys are playing we're reloading," Birmingham said. "You've got to tip your cap to these kids. There's a lot of new faces. Some days I look out there and the only old faces are right field (Harris) and behind the plate (Real)."

Now, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “I’ve heard this all before. The Lobos can hit but they can’t pitch.”

Think again.

UNM’s 3.97 ERA is its lowest since 1976. If the Lobos finish the season at 3.85 or better, it will be the third lowest ERA in program history and the best since before man walked on the moon. How’s that for perspective?

Preseason All-American Josh Walker has been the workhorse and ace the Lobos were counting on, going 5-2 with a 3.21 ERA in nine starts this season. He has two complete games, including one shutout, and has walked just five of the 287 batters he has faced in 67.1 innings. Junior lefty Colton Thomson has also held his own in his first season of Division I action. He has struck out a team-high 40 in 52.0 innings. Senior Jonathan Cuellar has made 11 appearances, including the last four Friday-night starts, and is 3-1 with a 2.65 ERA. He took over after Drew Bridges (2-1, 3.91) started the first five Fridays before going down with an injury.

The real strength of the staff, though, has been the bullpen. UNM is 23-0 when leading after six and 24-0 when heading into the ninth with a lead. The bulk of that is thanks to a quartet of pitchers. Sophomore Victor Sanchez has settled into the closers role nicely after starting two midweek games earlier this season. He is 1-0 with a team-leading six saves in 12 relief appearances this season. He has struck out 16 and allowed just two runs for a 1.04 ERA in 17.1 relief innings. Coming into the season he had never saved a game in his life.

Freshman Carson Schneider is UNM’s go-to lefty out of the pen, having made 15 relief appearances and owning a 1.69 ERA over 16.0 innings. Sophomore Taylor Duree has been the workhorse, leading the team with 18 relief appearances and 24.1 innings out of the pen. He is 2-0 with one save and a 2.59 ERA. Junior Jake Cole is 2-0 with three saves and a 2.78 ERA in 13 relief appearances spanning 22.2 innings. He is the Lobos’ strikeout leader out of the pen, fanning 26 batters on the year.

"We don't have to score nine runs like we seemed to have to do some games last year," Harris said. "(But) when we get that lead we feel pretty confident. Sanchez has been lights out. That kid is a stud, and he wants to pitch everyday."

Despite all this success, despite the roster turnover and youth, despite having its best season on the mound since the Ford Administration was in office, the Lobos remain unranked and un-talked about. UNM will take its five-game winning streak to San Jose State as it looks to solidify its hold on first in the Mountain West and maybe, just maybe, finally receive some national recognition.