Matthew Kenerly writes for our friends over at Mountain West Connection, and we got an inside look at how they feel about UNM Baseball in this weekend's regional in Lubbock.
Going to the tournament seems to be an annual accomplishment for the Lobos. Is that an expectation every year, and was that the focus for this year's team?
Absolutely. I think that, more than any other team in the Mountain West, New Mexico expects to win the conference year in and year out. It's warranted, too, given that the Lobos are in their fourth regional of the decade this weekend and continually churn out quality hitters: Sam Haggery, D.J. Peterson and others. All that's left, really, is to catch a few breaks and make a run to Omaha. As a Fresno State alumnus and fan myself, that team's regular season success caught me and a lot of others by surprise, but in the conference tournament it was UNM that stepped up and proved what everyone had guessed all along: They could pitch a little better than you think, and they could slug the bejesus out of the baseball.
Tech fans are quite familiar with what Stajduhar and DeVito can do (and have done) in the past. Who is one hitter that has flown under the radar to outside teams that will be a key in this regional?
I don't know if he's necessarily flown under the radar -- though perhaps he doesn't hit dingers quite like the pair you just mention -- but the guy in the lineup I'd keep my eye on is the guy who sets the table for everyone else: Sophomore outfielder Luis Gonzalez. He very quietly hit .368 on the year, as quiet as that kind of batting average can be, which was good for seventh in the conference, with an on-base percentage of .460. Gonzalez was also fifth in total bases on the back of 28 extra-base hits, and that production netted him second-team all-MWC honors before the tournament.
He was even better after, too: He hit .583 in the Lobos' three tourney wins, which included two doubles and a triple, and remained perfect on the basepaths (17-of-17 on stolen base attempts). His ability to maintain a hot bat will define how much damage the sluggers behind him can do, which I think is one of the more critical X-factors, if you will, of the entire regional.
Does the early season series against DBU provide any extra motivation to go out and win this 1st game on Friday?
Hard to imagine it doesn't. If you take away the Saturday bludgeoning given to UNM by the Patriots in that series, their season ERA drops a half-run from 4.87 to 4.38. If you look at their season as a whole, too, that series looks like an unusual aberration, and I figure they want to prove it. Colton Thomson, who had himself a pretty good season and capped it with a complete game three-hitter in the tournament, had a rough go of it the first time around, but it wouldn't surprise me if he traded zeroes with whomever was on the mound for DBU.
Are Lobo fans worried that the success that Coach Birmingham has had may entice other programs to try and pull him out of New Mexico?
It could be that there's some small semblance of anxiety, which is probably healthy since that's the reality of just about any college sport: Nevada's old head coach parlayed last season's regular season title into a power conference gig. However, other program observers like Chris Jackson, who I talked to before the conference tournament, have noted that, while it's a work in progress, UNM has taken steps to improve facilities. That, in turn, should help recruiting in the long term, which suggests that the Lobos haven't yet reached their ceiling, despite how consistent they've been.
Do you feel that playing in Lubbock in the past gives you an advantage over the other visiting teams?
Fairfield probably suffers the most by having to travel across two time zones to get to Lubbock, but I think that UNM and DBU, in theory, could have equal presence in west Texas. Dallas and Albuquerque, after all, are nearly the same distance from Texas Tech; it's roughly five and a half hours east or west on the interstate. I'd be surprised if the Lobos fanbase didn't have some presence at the field this weekend, though.
Thanks to Matt and be sure to head over to MWC to see what they wanted to know about the Red Raiders