LOS ANGELES—Ray Birmingham was understandably emotional after his New Mexico team was eliminated from the Los Angeles Regional with a 7-2 loss against Creighton on Sunday. Losing in the postseason is never easy for any coach, but for a core group of UNM seniors, Sunday was the end of an incredible three-year run.
"I lose a group of seniors this year that have been to three regionals, have won two conference tournaments and a conference (regular-season) championship," Birmingham said. "They've made a big impact on a program that is growing fast and getting after it. So it's kind of a hard day for me."
Before 2010, New Mexico hadn't been to a regional since 1962. The Lobos earned an at-large bid in 2010, then caught fire in the conference tournament to capture the Mountain West's automatic bid in 2011. This year they put everything together, tying perennial power Texas Christian for the regular-season title, then blowing through the MWC tournament as well.
Birmingham said a few weeks ago that he really believed his team was good enough to win a regional, and the Lobos headed into the postseason overflowing with confidence. But they failed to carry over their offensive fireworks from the MWC tourney, mustering just seven runs in three games at Jackie Robinson Stadium. On Sunday, Creighton righty Erik Mattingly held UNM to two runs (one earned) over six innings before handing off to Reese McGraw, who worked three perfect innings of relief.
"He definitely threw well today," New Mexico senior outfielder Ben Woodchick said of Mattingly. "We hit a lot of balls hard; just kind of been the thing for us these last two games, we were maybe trying to do a little too much. We were hot coming in, guys were maybe trying to do a little too much with each at-bat."
"It was an important day. We knew how important it was," Birmingham added. "And as Ben said, I think guys tried too hard. I think they tried to hit the three-run homer when it wasn't there."
The three-run homer was there for Creighton—shockingly. The Bluejays entered the game with just 15 home runs all season, but they got a huge lift in the first inning when Anthony Bemboom crushed a three-run homer off the hitting facility behind the right-field fence.
"Everybody got excited, obviously," Mattingly said of the mood in the dugout after Bemboom's blast. "It's not every day that our team hits home runs."
The Bluejays never looked back. Both times New Mexico started to generate some momentum—scoring single runs in the fourth and fifth innings—Creighton answered with two runs in the bottom of each frame.
"Every time we climbed back up on top of the mountain, they kicked us back down," Birmingham said. "That affects you emotionally, especially after an emotional year, a grind and a fight."
Birmingham pointed out on Friday how fitting it was that New Mexico and New Mexico State were both in the postseason for the first time ever, in the 100th anniversary of the Land of Enchantment. College baseball is thriving in the state, and there's no reason to expect it to drop off anytime soon.
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