At times this season, the New Mexico baseball team had the poise and mental fortitude of a former league champion.
In other instances, though, UNM displayed the immaturity and mental lapses of a young team trying to hold its place atop the Mountain West, leading to an uneven season for the Lobos.
For the third-straight season, UNM (37-20-1) won the MW league championship, but was named co-champion along with UNLV. However, in the MW tournament in Las Vegas, Nevada, the Lobos struggled and were ousted by Nevada 9-4 in 11 innings to effectively end their season.
Despite winning a third consecutive conference title, the NCAA committee decided that UNM hadn’t done enough to earn an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament. Ranking No. 66 in RPI didn’t help the Lobos’ cause, either. It marked the first time since 2009 that UNM didn’t qualify for the NCAA tournament.
Head coach Ray Birmingham said it stings to miss the NCAAs, but he’s still proud of what his young team accomplished. UNM regularly had seven or eight freshmen and sophomores in the lineup throughout the season.
“It was a great year … it was a rebuilding year with so many young people and with so many things happening,” he said. “I told the team all fall and early spring that ‘Everybody is looking for you, baby. You guys have been the guys to beat and you have a big target on your back.’”
The MW tournament showcased the Lobos’ inexperience in the field and at the plate.
In the Lobos’ 11-5 loss to San Diego State in the first round of the MW tournament, UNM committed three errors in the seventh inning, allowing SDSU to score eight runs to pull away for the win.
Against Nevada, UNM left 19 men on base, going just 7-for-32 (.219).
Birmingham attributed UNM’s poor play over the last few weeks of the season to fatigue and opposing teams’ figuring out how to defend against the Lobos’ offense.
“In the tournament was defense. It was a matter of defense and playing catch and scouting reports. … Young clubs don’t hit home runs because they’re not strong enough yet. They played us shallow,” Birmingham said. “Those things you can’t control, but you can play better defense. The sad part about us is that it erased 30 games of outstanding championship team.”
The next step for Birmingham and the program is to see the renovations to Lobo Field completed. The venue has undergone a $3.5 million renovation that has included new bleachers, turf field, press area, dugouts and lights that were installed this past fall.
UNM intends to add a clubhouse and bathrooms this summer. The bathrooms are projected to cost $270,000, and the clubhouse $500,000.
Not having a first-class facility has hurt the Lobos in recruiting efforts, Brimingham said.
“It is frustrating, but it’s something that I’m passionate about and dedicated to. It’s something that has to happen,” he said. “Is it a lot better? Absolutely. Is it as good as San Diego State? Is it as good as UNLV? Is it as good as Fresno State? No, it’s not even close.”
UNM doesn’t expect to have many players taken in this year’s MLB draft on Friday as most of the Lobos aren’t draft-eligible. Birmingham does believe catcher Alex Real, right fielder Chase Harris and pitcher Josh Walker will be drafted.
Walker may potentially be taken in the top 10 rounds of the draft, Birmingham said.
Haggerty earns Academic All-American nod
UNM second baseman Sam Haggerty was named a third team Capital One/CoSida All-American, the organization announced Friday.
Haggerty became the second UNM student-athlete to be honored, joining women’s soccer player Brooke Ellison.
“It’s a great honor because it recognizes my plays on the field and my work in the classroom,” Haggerty said in a release.
The sophomore from Denver is majoring in finance and has a cumulative GPA of 3.78. He is one of just three sophomores in the country to be named an Academic All-American this year.
Thomas Romero-Salas is the sports editor for the Daily Lobo. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ThomasRomeroS.