The New Mexico baseball team will enter the final regular season series leading the Mountain West conference standings by percentage points, but the Lobos are still faced with some difficult circumstances.
Senior first baseman Jack Zoellner fractured his metacarpal bone after being hit by a pitch at Fresno State last weekend. And the Lobos found themselves only a half game above second place San Diego State, after UNM (28-23-1, 18-7-1 MW) was swept at Fresno State and San Diego State won a series at Air Force.
Unfortunately for Zoellner, both he and head coach Ray Birmingham came to the conclusion that he'll be out for the rest of the season, including the Lobos’ hopeful push into the postseason.
“He probably won't be with us on the trail to Omaha,” Birmingham said. “But he will be able to play pro ball…The bottom line for me is to make sure my kids get what they want out of playing Lobo baseball and (Zoellner) will.”
Birmingham added that Zoellner’s fracture was clean and that it shouldn't have any effects in the future, while also relaying the fact that scouts haven't shielded away from interest in his first baseman despite the circumstances.
However, the Lobos can rebound and turn what seems to be a downhill spiral as of late, into a positive. That positive can come in the likes of winning out its last three game of the regular season at home against Nevada.
And for the Lobos, winning out is more than possible, even without one of its key stars.
Despite losing Zoellener, who had a .368 batting average — second on the team — and a team-high slugging percentage of .663, the Lobos are still a more-than-capable hitting team.
UNM, as a team, has a combined batting average of .319, which still ranks in the top 10 in Division 1 baseball. More specifically, the Lobos are No. 9 in that category.
Sophomore outfielder Jared Mang is still leading the team in batting average (.373), while putting up great numbers. Mang has 16 doubles, two triples, eight home runs, 59 RBI and 57 runs — and he can still add more of those numbers on to his stat line with three games left in the regular season.
Junior outfielder/pitcher Luis Gonzalez has also had a healthy year at the plate, though he's hit slumps throughout. Gonzalez is batting a healthy .364 — third best on the team — while adding a team-high 22 doubles, two triples, six home runs, 38 RBI and 56 runs.
How can UNM win out when they haven't looked great lately?
The Lobos lost to Fresno State in a sweep fashion last week, but Fresno State is also a great Mountain West team that has a record eerily similar to the Lobos, while also ranking in at No. 3 in the conference itself.
Nevada — UNM’s last series this season — is a different story. The Wolfpack rank No. 4 in the conference, but Nevada's record both in conference and overall isn't the best. Overall, Nevada is 17-33 on the year, while in conference they also post a below .500 record of 11-15.
The Wolfpack have also been swept in series by teams UNM has owned this season. Nevada was swept by San Jose State and Air Force, respectively, while the Lobos hold a 3-1-1 record over the Spartans and a 5-1 mark over the Falcons.
Nevada, as a team, has a pretty decent ERA of 5.79, compared to UNM’s 6.14 team ERA. Still, UNM is a good hitting team, so the idea that Nevada will hold the Lobos to under its team ERA would be less than likely, especially since UNM likes to run up the score with four superset games this season of 20 plus runs and a plethora of double digit games this season.
But Birmingham, even when the numbers favor the Lobos, doesn't want to take Nevada lightly.
“Nevada is playing well, so it's going to be tough,” he said. “Championships don't come easy, and they're hard to get.”
The series will start on Thursday, May 18 and conclude on Saturday. Game one has a set time of 6:30 p.m. and will be streamed live on ESPN Radio 101.7, The TEAM.
Matthew Narvaiz is a sports reporter for the Daily Lobo. He primarily covers baseball and women's basketball. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @matt_narvaiz.