Blue-collar. That’s how senior Danny Collier described this new-look team, which features 17 freshmen as well as a few new transfers, marking a much different team than a season ago.
“It’s always blue-collar,” Collier said. “We come out to the yard everyday, work hard, and that’s all you can do. What happens on the field happens on the field. But the work, the preparation that you bring to the table each day, that’s what’s gonna get you there.”
It’s fitting, since the Lobos have lost the likes of Luis Gonzalez, Carl Stajduhar, Andre Vigil and Jack Zoellner — all who played integral roles at the plate and in their respective positions. And making up for those losses means working harder as a collective unit.
Still, the University of New Mexico poses a plethora of power on the offensive end. Junior Jared Mang, who led the Lobos a season ago in batting average at .373, is back this season, while Collier (.328) and junior infielder Hayden Schilling (.317) are also notable returnees whose bats played an integral role.
“This team you got to be patient with because there’s 20 new faces on a 35 man roster,” UNM head coach Ray Birmingham said. “This team’s a championship team. This team has a chance to get to Omaha, but we got to be patient.”
Notable positions that need to be replaced this season are first base, third base, right field and center field, as well as the starting rotation.
Gonzalez and Tyler Stevens, as well as Johnathon Tripp and Carson Schneider, who both graduated, were regulars as far as UNM’s starting pitching went last season.
Pitching overall, though, is the big question mark for this new UNM team. But Birmingham, even though he said that his pitchers are still growing, isn’t all too worried. He said that if his pitchers can “hit the mitt” and have command over their pitches, his team can reach Omaha.
The Lobos still pose one of the best closers in the Mountain West. Christian Tripp, a junior out of Spring, Texas, led the conference in saves a season ago.
Tripp said that padding his stats with a bunch of saves isn’t what he’s looking for. Fitting, being that the team’s identity is “blue collar,” working day-in-and-day-out as a collective group, and less so as individuals.
Instead, Tripp said his main focus is helping the team in any way he can, and if those saves add up and his stat line looks nice, so be it — he’s just not all too worried about the flashy numbers.
As far as who will start on the mound for the Lobos’ season opener come Friday, Birmingham spoke highly of junior Chad Smith, who is from the Albuquerque area, where he played for La Cueva High School.
“What we’re known around the country for in baseball here in Albuquerque is our swagger,” Birmingham said. “Alex Bregman. Lobo baseball. We think we can. People don’t know how hard and how much you have to work to be great, and how mentally focused you have to be. Watch Chad Smith, watch what he does, because Chad Smith is the poster boy for that.”
Birmingham said that the entire infield “will be new,” while also saying that starting positions aren’t necessarily solidified. Instead, he said, he doesn’t want his players to get complacent.
“It’s gonna change, it’s gonna change, it’s gonna change,” Birmingham said on whether positions are set in stone. “I want them to know that everyday they need to try to earn the job. I want you to be comfortable and relaxed, but I want you to compete to keep it because there’s a guy sitting on the bench that wants your job.”
The Lobos open up their season with a four game tournament over the weekend in Surprise, Arizona. Their first opponent? That’ll be Oregon State, who is ranked no. 2 in the nation, according to D1Baseball.com and Baseball America. That game is on Friday, Feb. 16 at 1 p.m.
But Birmingham doesn’t want it to be too easy for his team. That’s why his teams have played the best of the best “for the last 10 years,” he said. And that’s why they’re playing Oregon State in their season opener.
Facing the second best team in the nation, though, doesn’t faze this team.
“Blue-collar again,” Schilling said, with a sense of swagger to his words. “We’re gonna be blue-collar for the next 10, and we’re gonna be blue collar for the next 30. We go into every game (thinking) no one is going to beat us.”
Hard work, dedication and a will to win. This Lobo team has that.
Matthew Narvaiz is a senior sports reporter for the Daily Lobo. He primarily covers men’s and women’s basketball, and baseball. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @matt_narvaiz.