Building A Case: New Mexico

Ray Birmingham had seen this movie before. Still, that didn’t make it any less enjoyable.

His New Mexico team twice was down its final three outs on Saturday against Fresno State. Both times they fought back with game-tying home runs in the bottom of the ninth and again in the 10th, finally winning 14-13 on Andre Vigil’s walk-off single in the 12th. The Lobos went on to finish the three-game sweep Sunday, moving to 12-3 in the Mountain West Conference, 2 1/2 games up on second-place Air Force.

Building A Case: New Mexico
RPI: 49
Vs. Top 50: 0-1
Vs. Top 100: 3-4
Remaining Schedule
Vs. Top 50: 2
Vs. 51-100: 0
Vs. 101-200: 18
Vs. 201+: 3
Key Series (RPI)
April 29-May 1 at Arizona State (116)
Don’t Lose To … (RPI)
April 22-24 vs. San Diego State (201)
*RPI data as of April 13 on

“We’ve always had offensive clubs, and we’ve never felt like we’ve been out of it, ever,” Birmingham said. “Those kinds of games have happened before while I’ve been here. They don’t happen everyday, especially against a pitching staff like Fresno State’s, but when it does happen, it’s exciting to watch.”

The Lobos had ruled the roost in the Mountain West since Texas Christian’s departure for the Big 12, winning (or sharing) three straight regular-season titles from 2012-14, until last year’s fourth-place finish amidst a rash of injuries—15 different players missed time at various points, according to Birmingham. They haven’t escaped the injury bug this year either—outfielder Danny Collier, one of their best hitters and the 2014 MWC freshman of the year, is out for the season. Nevertheless, outside of a disastrous weekend against Dallas Baptist in which the Lobos were swept and gave up 33 runs in a game, New Mexico has had the kind of bounce back season Birmingham expected.

Playing in the thin air of Albuquerque, the Lobos have rarely had problems putting together prolific offenses, having finished in the top 10 nationally in hitting in six of the last seven seasons. They’re duly ranked ninth this year with a collective .322 average. The emergence of power-hitting catcher Chris DeVito, who homered three times on Saturday and has a team-high 11 on the year, has helped offset Collier’s loss, and six Lobo regulars are batting over .300.

The real difference? Pitching. The Lobos also have a pair of standout arms in their rotation with lefties Carson Schneider (6-1, 3.05) and Colton Thomson (4-1, 3.02). Neither of them have overpowering stuff, throwing in the upper 80s with their fastballs, but both the junior Schneider and fifth-year senior Thomson are the kind of veteran college pitchers that know their craft and find ways to get outs.

“What we’ve had to do is improve our facilities so we can recruit pitching, and we built a big yard so pitchers would want to pitch in it,” Birmingham said, referring to the $2 million UNM spent on stadium upgrades. “So, the difference maker for us is our pitching. (Pitching) coach (Ken) Jacome’s done a good job of getting them right. We have two lefthanders that really can beat anybody in the country, and we’ve got more depth.

“It used to be, when I first started here nine years ago, Tuesday games were pray for rain or score a lot of runs. Now it’s changed. Now we can pitch, and we have more of them and we have more of them doing well.”

The thin Albuquerque air still throws off UNM’s pitching numbers—their 5.13 team ERA ranks 193rd nationally. That weekend against Dallas Baptist reinforced a valuable lesson: keep the ball down. Ever since, the Lobos have proven they can win the kind of close, low scoring games that used to be few and far between. They won a 1-0 game against Sacramento State on March 28, a 2-1 game against Fresno last Friday and have won by 3-2 scores three times.

“The pressure has been taken off the offense, thank God,” Birmingham said. “Those are the indicators. That’s how you get to Omaha. You don’t get to Omaha with your bats. You get to Omaha with your pitching and defense.”

[shareprints gallery_id=”167143″ gallery_type=”thumb_slider_desc” gallery_position=”pos_center” gallery_width=”width_100″ image_size=”large” image_padding=”0″ theme=”dark” image_hover=”false” lightbox_type=”slide” titles=”true” captions=”true” descriptions=”true” comments=”false” sharing=”true”]But for as well has the Lobos are playing, having improved to 23-10 overall and at No. 49 in the RPI on, Birmingham is wary of their season coming down to the conference tournament. Nevada fell afoul of that last year, winning the MWC regular-season title and spending most of the year in the at-large picture until an 0-2 showing the league tournament cost it a bid. As of Wednesday, New Mexico and Fresno State are the only Mountain West teams in the top 100 of the RPI, which makes the Lobos’ sweep all the more important.

The Lobos still have key non-conference games ahead with Texas Tech in a two-game midweek series next week—they’ve already played TTU once but lost—and a full weekend series at Arizona State on April 29-May 1. But the margin for error will be thin. Getting swept by DBU, another top-100 team, was a costly missed opportunity, as UNM has just three wins against the top 100 (all from the Fresno series) and will have to avoid any pitfalls in Mountain West play, whether in the regular season or the tournament.

“We have to (schedule well),” Birmingham said. “We don’t get RPI from our conference games. We have to schedule tough all the time, so every game is as tough as we can make it. I mean, we’re in California now (playing midweek games). . . . I don’t know that we’ll be a two-bid league. We were (regular-season) conference champs three years in a row, and you go to the tournament and you’ve got to win the tournament.”

But if they can survive the next seven weeks and make it through to their first regional since 2013, Birmingham likes their chances.

“I think this is a regional team,” he said. “We’ve still got a lot of baseball left, so you sweat that part, but I think this team pitches good enough to get us back to a regional and have a chance to win one.”

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