Stevens: Lobos Eye TCU & the Mountain West Title
May 2, 2012
New Mexico Lobos Baseball - On The Mountain West Road
Friday: 5:30 p.m. (MT), New Mexico Lobos at TCU
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
A few years back when it was New Mexico vs. TCU in baseball, it was like Muhammad Ali meeting the Boxer of The Month or maybe Tiger Woods eyeing a weekend hacker. TCU was Ali. TCU was the Tiger.
Things have changed.
When the New Mexico Lobos stroll into Fort Worth on Friday to start a three-game series with the Horned Frogs, it might be the Lobos who are the team to beat.
The Lobos top the Mountain West by a game, took two-of-three from the Horned Frogs in Albuquerque, are receiving votes in a Top 25 poll, and are one of the top hitting teams in the nation.
Better yet - the Lobos can pitch.
"Pitching changed everything," said Lobo Coach Ray Birmingham, who noted that UNM's team ERA of 4.57 was the lowest since the season of 1977.
Of course, Birmingham has changed a lot of things, too. His Lobos are charging toward their third consecutive spot in the postseason and although the MW regular-season title does not produce the league's automatic NCAA bid, it is a huge plus on any at-large resume.
Not only that, but it would just be nice to shoo the Horned Frogs out of the league knowing that their string of six straight MW regular-season titles was snapped by Lobos.
"Heck, yeah, it's important," said Birmingham of beating TCU to the crown. "Would it be cool? Heck, yeah. It's the best college team in Texas over the last five years. Does it changes thing for us? No, we're still going that way (up). This weekend is indicative of what we're doing and what we've done and where we're going."
Said Lobo pitcher Austin House: "It's just another Mountain West series. You can't make it too big. Of course, they are the Horned Frogs."
Yes, they are the Horned Frogs and wins over the Horned Frogs are nice to bank. TCU wins about 75 percent of its games in Lupton Stadium. The Frogs also are hot, having won 13 of 15 and four straight.
The season of 2012 was a yo-yo affair for the Lobos much of the season and even an at-large NCAA bid seemed to be slipping away. The Lobos would have a good win followed by a bad loss. Then the Lobos got hot - at the plate and on the mound. UNM has won 10 of 12 games and takes a 26-19 record to 26-15 TCU.
"We're swinging a little bit better," said House. "We're pitching a little bit better. We're fielding a little bit better. We're on a roll right now. We all know that."
UNM tops the MW with a 12-3 slate and TCU is 11-4. San Diego State is next at 9-9, so the series in TCU will produce the 2012 Mountain title. Will it be Lobos or Frogs? As Birmingham says, "Who's going to do this and who's going to do that."
Said Lobo catcher Mitchell Garver: "We all had a feeling that toward the end of the season this was going to be the series that kind of determined everything. And it is."
If either team sweeps the three-game series, that team will have an edge coming around third into the home stretch. Even a 2-1 series favoring UNM would be huge for the Lobos. But the MW title and the No. 1 seed in the MW tourney will not be clinched in TCU.
The Lobos finish with three games at UNLV and three more in Albuquerque vs. Air Force. TCU finishes with three games at Air Force and will host San Diego State for a trio of games.
The Lobos are the top hitting team in the Mountain with a .318 team average, good for the No. 7 spot in the nation. TCU has had an off year at the plate and are hitting .251 as a team - last in the MW.
"TCU is going to manufacture (runs)," said Birmingham. "They are going to try to stick an elbow over the plate. They are going to take a lot of pitches. They are going to bunt. They are going to hit and run. They are going to try and steal bases.
"They are going to try to keep the score down, but the yard (stadium) will do that. Everything that we do well (at the plate) will be negated because of the yard and because they have a good pitching staff."
The TCU arms top the Mountain with a 3.08 ERA. UNM is at 4.57, but the depth of his bullpen gives Birmingham lots of arms to throw at the Frogs. The Lupton Stadium is built more for pitching than hitting, so both pitching staffs should find some advantages in the site. UNM has a .463 slugging percentage to TCU's .345. UNM had 31 home runs and TCU has 15.
It's a dead park," said Garver. "The only thing you can really do is hit the ball hard and if you hit the ball hard, good things are going to happen."
The Lobos have a potent lineup with seven batters hitting .300 or better. The Lobos are led in hitting by sophomore DJ Peterson, whose .437 averages ranks him No. 3 in the NCAA. Garver is hitting .380 followed by freshman Ryan Padilla at .364, Ben Woodchick at .335, Trey Porras at .312, Josh Melendez at .331 and John Pustay at .307.
"If all of them do it (hit) on the same day, I feel sorry for whoever is in the other dugout," said Birmingham.
Well, maybe against an average opponent Birmingham might feel some pity. But this is TCU.
Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former Associate Sports Editor and Sports Columnist at The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at email@example.com.