Calling the New Mexico baseball team’s schedule tough might be an understatement this season.
With the exception of perennial Mountain West cellar-dweller Air Force, every Lobo foe this season has appeared in an NCAA regional since 2002.
Yes, even Texas-San Antonio (2005), Binghamton (2009) and Creighton (2007) have reached the postseason in the last decade.
Four of UNM’s 2011 foes — Arizona, Arizona State, Oklahoma and TCU — were playoff teams just last year, with all but the Wildcats reaching the College World Series in Omaha.
Lobos coach Ray Birmingham said his team, which features only one senior and one returning position player from last year’s regional squad, has been prepared for what awaits it this season.
“They know what they’re headed towards because I’ve said it repeatedly since they’ve arrived,” Birmingham said. “Gentlemen, you are fixing to play on the hardest schedules in the history of the University of New Mexico, not only in baseball but in any sport and you’d better get after it.
“There’s a lot of people on our schedule that may not be at the World Series, but they were one of the best teams in the conference they represent, I promise you. A lot of them have been to regionals in the last couple years. A majority of them have. It’s a competitive schedule. There’s not any letup in the schedule. So what I’m doing is we’re just going to call it what it is — a baptism by fire.”
The young Lobos will get thrown right into the inferno when they visit No. 11-ranked Arizona State for a four-games-in-three-days series starting Friday at 6:30 p.m.
“They’re excited about playing ASU,” Birmingham said. “We plan on beating (the Sun Devils). But it’s just an opening series. It’s one step in a season-long deal. The thing that I know is I want these guys to grow and get experience. The only you can do that is to go play the best. I want them to play the best, I don’t want to play anybody but whoever we’ve got to go through to get to Omaha someday. I want them to experience that, taste it and then as they grow old, they get long in the tooth they’re going to special, I promise you.”
The UNM players are certainly not lacking in confidence heading into the series.
“We expect to go out there and sweep them,” said junior left-hander Rudy Jaramillo. “We want four wins. We’ve got the pitching staff and the hitters who can do it. I don’t see why we can’t go out there and perform well and take four games from them.”
“They have one of the best programs in the country,” said sophomore shortstop Alex Allbritton. “I expect to be challenged. They’ll be coming out with fire just because they don’t have a chance to go to the postseason this year. It’ll be a battle but it’ll be fun at the same time.”
“That’s Coach B’s thing, he likes to throw you out there in the middle of the war and see how you handle it,” said sophomore catcher Mitchell Garver. “We’re going to take it as it comes and if we walk out of there 0-4 or 4-0, it’s not going to affect us the rest of the season. It’s just how we are.”
Jaramillo, Allbritton and Garver are three of the more experienced Lobos returning this season.
Joining Jaramillo (4-2, 5.83 ERA in 11 starts and five relief appearances last year) in the weekend rotation are three right-handers — junior Gera Sanchez (2-2, 5.32, five saves), senior Richard Olson (4-3, 4.19, one save) and freshman Jake McCasland.
Sanchez will start Friday’s opener, with Jaramillo and Olson taking the mound in Saturday’s doubleheader and McCasland finishing the series Sunday.
“I really like what we’re seeing,” Garver said of the pitchers. “We have a lot more depth and shape in our pitching staff than last year. Every guy out there can come in, throw strikes and get the job done.”
The pitching staff dominated the annual Cherry and Silver intrasquad series in the fall, a sharp turnaround from seasons past.
“I think this is the best pitching staff since I’ve been here,” Jaramillo said. “It was kind of weird this fall, going out there and having a 3-1 game or a 2-0 game, it was kind of different. In the past it’s been 14-10 games. After the scrimmages Coach Birmingham was giving the pitching staff some props, so I think we’re excited about our pitching staff, definitely.”
Birmingham said improving the pitching at UNM has been his goal since the moment he arrived on campus.
“I think the Achilles heel of this program has always been pitching,” he said. “We’ve got six drafted pitchers. We spent our money on pitching. We went out and recruited some of the better pitchers in the country that we could acquire. We’ve got a new pitching coach who I’m really impressed with, Dave Martinez, he’s done a super job. Watch how our pitching grows, because that’s how you get to Omaha is pitching. We’ve got some guys that are going to be really, really special as time goes on. Sam Wilson and Jake McCasland, two New Mexico boys, are going to be a big, big part of that.”
McCasland, a graduate of Piedra Vista High in Farmington, has drawn a lot of attention from his teammates.
“McCasland is going to start on Sundays (but) he could easily start Friday or Saturday; he could close games if he wanted to,” Jaramillo said. “He’s just an overall great pitcher. He has everything you need in a pitcher, the size, the fastball, offspeed (pitches).”
McCasland was a 38th-round draft pick by the San Francisco Giants but opted to pitch for the Lobos instead.
“Just living here, just being from New Mexico it meant a lot to me to come here and represent New Mexico,” McCasland said. “It means a lot to these guys who come from New Mexico.”
Birmingham said the first thing that struck him about McCasland was the change in his demeanor from the dugout to the mound.
“Jake’s a kid that’s ‘aw shucks, give me the ball’ and then when he gets on the mound you go, ‘Who is that guy?’” Birmingham said with a laugh. “He can run the ball up into the mid-90s. He’s really improved his pitching. His breaking ball is tight, his changeup is unbelievable. He’s throwing three pitches for strikes and you can’t tell if it’s a breaking ball or a changeup.”
McCasland shrugged his shoulders when asked about his attitude on the mound versus away from the field.
“Well, shoot, when I get there on the field it’s game-time for sure,” he said. “I like to get out there and compete. I like to have fun; you might not see it but I definitely like to get out there. In the dugout I don’t talk a whole lot whenever I’m pitching. That’s how I’ve always done it.”
The roles in the Lobo bullpen are still being set, though sophomore right-handers Austin House (1-1, 8.44, one save) and Bobby Mares (3-1, 4.46) are expected to take on key roles, as will junior lefty Gabe Aguilar (1-1, 6.38).
Another highly-touted freshman, Sam Wilson, will serve as both UNM’s center fielder and as a midweek starter. Wilson will get the ball in Tuesday’s home opener at Isotopes Park against New Mexico State.
“He’s one of the better freshmen center fielders in the country,” Birmingham said of the Eldorado High graduate. “As he learns to hit the professional way — he’s had to make some adjustments from the old Eldorado lift-and-pull swing — he’s a (fast) runner and he plays center field as good as I’ve seen. His bat will come around. When he figures it out, heads up, he’s going to be really, really special.”
Garver and Allbritton will serve as the anchors to the lineup.
Allbritton is the only player on the team with more than 20 career starts in the field, having racked up 50 starts at third base last season while batting .301 with 31 RBI. This season he will be making a position change.
“Alex Allbritton moves to shortstop and I think that kid is going to be special for us,” Birmingham said. “He’s got to replace Danny Gonzalez, who I thought was as solid of a shortstop as there was around the country. Alex has got some big shoes to fill but I think he’s capable of that doing that and being a professional baseball player.”
Allbritton said the transition from third to short has become easier over time.
“It’s going well now,” he said. “I moved there this past summer and I struggled a little bit just kind of adjusting. But now it’s perfectly fine. I feel comfortable being back at shortstop.”
Garver (.277, 15 RBI) was the backup to junior Rafael Neda, a 10th-round draft pick of the Milwaukee Brewers, last season as a freshman.
“I learned a lot from Rafael,” Garver said. “He was a great mentor for me last year. He taught me everything I needed to know about D-I baseball. He was always there for me when I had questions. He always had my back when I needed help.”
One thing Garver learned was the importance of being a good communicator with the pitching staff.
“As a catcher that’s my job, you’ve got to be face-to-face with those guys,” Garver said. “We’ve had a lot of one-on-ones, we’ve had a lot of pitcher-catcher meetings. It’s taken the whole fall to develop a good relationship with these guys, but I feel pretty confident with what we have.”
Despite only having 11 career starts, Garver draws a lot of praise from his head coach.
“Mitchell Garver is going to be better than Rafael Neda,” Birmingham said. “Mitchell Garver is, I think, a kid that will be in the big leagues some day.
“He catches and throws really well. He can hit, he’s got a great swing. As he gets his mental side prepared for quality at-bats, I think as he matures and gets some experience he’s going to be special.”
The rest of the infield will feature sophomore Jacob Nelson at first base, junior Kyle Stiner at second and freshman D.J. Peterson at third base.
Nelson hit .378 with three home runs in 37 at-bats last year, making him the third-most experienced player on the infield.
Stiner is a transfer from Paradise Valley College in Arizona and played for the Arizona Wildcats as a freshman.
“I think we have just as good of an infield defense as we did last year,” Jaramillo said. “The pitching staff has total confidence in our defense right now.”
The corner outfield spots, however, are still in flux. Sophomore John Michael Twichell (.350, 10 RBI) was expected to start in either left or right, but he is out indefinitely with an elbow injury.
Birmingham said junior-college transfers Trey Porras and Quay Grant are in the running to start in left and right, respectively, but there will be competition for the positions all season.
“Outfield play last year was a strength for us,” Birmingham said. “We’ve tried to move some guys around. We’ve got some good options.”
The Lobos will have nine games under their belts by the time March rolls around, which should give them some indication of what kind of season to expect.
“This is what people call a rebuilding year, but I refuse to say that,” Birmingham said. “We’re young, that’s all I’m going to say.”
With road trips to ASU, Oklahoma State, Arizona, Gonzaga, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and against conference foes San Diego State, TCU, BYU and UNLV, the Lobos will have to grow up fast.
“This is going to be a growing year for us,” Birmingham said. “But we plan on going into every game to beat everybody’s tail (off). Last year, we walked onto the field with at least six or seven upperclassmen on the mound and on the field when we beat (No. 1) Texas. Now there’s one senior here. There’s going to be sophomores and freshmen all over the place. That’s why they picked us fourth in the conference. We’re fixing to prove that wrong, so heads up.”