This season, UNM baseball catcher Mitchell Garver’s walk-up song to the batter’s box was David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.”
By the looks of the season, that was about the only dancing UNM would do. That is, until the sixth-seeded Lobos, 16-39 during the season, ripped four straight wins at the Mountain West Conference tournament in San Diego — two against No. 7 TCU, including the decisive championship-round win — to earn their second straight NCAA tournament appearance.
UNM beat TCU 4-2 May 27, capping one of the most improbable runs in MWC tournament history. The Lobos face Arizona State on Friday in the Tempe, Ariz., regional.
“I’m excited to see how we stack up,” Garver said. “That’s what happened this past weekend. I think we’re playing some of our best baseball. We did our thing, and we came out on top.”
UNM opened the season at ASU and was swept in a three-game series. The Sun Devils have 35 straight NCAA appearances and 22 in the College World Series. But UNM isn’t concerned about its opponent or the past.
“We’re rolling right now,” outfielder Luke Campbell said. “We’re ready to go play Arizona State again and we’re just getting another shot at those guys.”
UNM head coach Ray Birmingham said the Lobos survived the brutal schedule he compiled, which featured more road games than home games and included series with five ranked teams.
“They stayed the course, believed, and it paid off,” he said.
“You got to dare to be great with the schedule we had. I believed it was there — that it would happen, and I didn’t know when (winning the MWC tournament) would happen.”
To get there, the Lobos defeated third-seeded BYU 5-4 in 11 innings on May 19 and staged a dramatic, 4-3 come-from-behind win against top-seeded TCU in the second round.
Just a week before the MWC tourney, the Horned Frogs swept UNM by a combined score of 36-24, and the Lobos finished the season on a seven-game losing streak.
All hope seemed lost for the youthful Lobos. Then UNM edged Utah 6-5 on May 26 to earn its spot in the championship round, and TCU beat Utah to set up a rematch.
In his only pitching performance of the tournament, Austin House pitched six shutout innings before giving up two runs — one earned — in the seventh frame, before Bobby Mares pitched three scoreless innings to give the Lobos the title.
House said the championship game setting against TCU was sensational.
“It was extreme and one of the biggest adrenaline rushes I’ve ever had,” House said. “But we’re living large right now, and we had all the confidence in the world.”
Birmingham said the team came together at the right time.
“Good pitching stops good hitting any day,” Birmingham said.
“Austin House is a symbol of what I want to do here. He is a New Mexico kid with much talent, but he needed the maturity and the time. The championship game, that day, was the Austin House coming out party. Man, was he fantastic.”
It took three appearances in four years for Birmingham to guide the Lobos to a MWC tournament title — a goal of his when he was hired four years ago. And now he said it’s time to take the next step and reach the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
“I’m trying to keep them grounded and focused on the prize,” Birmingham said. “Let’s go to regionals and win regionals, don’t be happy that you got to regionals. We’re focused on the prize to win regionals and super regionals, because this whole thing is about going to Omaha.”