Earlier in the season, New Mexico was a young baseball team trying to find itself.
That was evident when UNM hosted UNLV, who had a four-game winning streak at the time, in March losing two out of three games at Lobo Field. The Lobos lost their only Mountain West series of the season thanks to numerous mental errors, a sign of their youth.
Now heading into this weekend’s three-game series in Las Vegas, things have changed for both UNM and UNLV.
The 24th-ranked Lobos sit atop the Mountain West and have won nine-straight games, while the Rebels are on a five-game losing streak, the last three coming at Air Force.
“I feel a lot better. I feel a lot more confident. I think a lot of us do,” outfielder John Pustay said. “We’re just focused on everybody doing their job and doing their roles. I feel confident and I feel comfortable.”
UNM (31-11-1, 14-4 MW) currently has a four-game lead in the loss column over both UNLV (25-15, 13-8) and Nevada (21-17, 13-8), both are tied for second place in the conference.
Catcher Alex Real said the main difference from the beginning of the season and now is that UNM is starting to come together.
“The thing is over the course of the season that a lot of the younger guys have matured. The older guys too,” he said.” It’s a group effort and we’ve been playing like a team lately.”
If the Lobos want to add to their conference lead, they’ll have to do a better job against one of the better pitching staffs in the conference.
In the last series, UNLV gave up just 7 runs in the three games.
The Rebels staff leads the league in ERA at 2.82 and is holding opposing batters to a .239 hitting average. Starters Erick Fedde, John Richy and Brian Bonnell all have an ERA of 2.96 or better.
But UNLV’s bullpen doesn’t have much depth outside of reliever Joey Lauria, who holds a 2.01 ERA, and closer Bradyen Torres (2.95 ERA, six saves). The Rebels have been tough at home with a 15-2 record.
“They’re hard to hit and they have the best pitching staff in the conference,” head coach Ray Birmingham said. “We’re different hitters now that at that time. We were still trying to find ourselves. We still got our best baseball ahead of us.”
UNM will be without starting shortstop Jared Holley and outfielder Danny Collier, both of whom are suffering from hamstring injuries.
Pitcher Drew Bridges will be available to pitch for the first time since he started at Fresno State on March 14.
Sanchez named to watch list for Stopper of the Year list
UNM closer Victor Sanchez was named to the Midseason Watch List for the Stopper of the Year Award on Wednesday.
Sanchez is one of 50 players on the list.
“I’m honored,” he said in a release. “That’s really cool. I never would have thought that would be possible coming into the year. I just go out there and try to do my job to the help the team win.”
An Albuquerque native, Sanchez struggled with his control last season going 1-0 with a 6.75 ERA in just 8 innings last season.
This year Sanchez has been untouchable. He’s 3-0 with a team-high seven saves and has a 0.98 ERA in 27.2 innings. Sanchez has struck out 26 hitters while giving up just 10 hits and 10 walks.
San Diego State’s Michael Cederoth is the other Mountain West player to be named on the list. Cederoth is second in the nation in saves with 15.
At the end of the regular-season, the Division I national saves leader and four other relief pitchers will be designated as finalists and released Wednesday, June 4.
The National College Baseball Writers Association’s All-America Committee will choose the winner. The recipient will be announced during the College World Series.