The road to Omaha will feature some familiar faces for New Mexico in the regional tournament this weekend.
On Monday, UNM was selected as the No. 3 seed in the Lubbock, Texas Regionals. Of the three opponents, New Mexico has faced off against two of the clubs in the double elimination tournament.
Against Texas Tech (41-16) and Dallas Baptist (41-17), the Lobos have accumulated a 1-5 record. Head coach Ray Birmingham said he devised a difficult schedule for that purpose – he wanted to play the best in anticipation for later in the season.
“You could make a conversation that Texas Tech could be the number one team in the country. That is an argument that is well founded. They won the Big XII, they won a big conference,” Birmingham said. “Dallas Baptist you could argue is all that too, because last year they were the number one team in the country.”
UNM ace and Friday night’s 5 p.m. starter against DBU, Colton Thomson, said familiarity has played right into UNM’s confidence, despite getting swept in early March by the Patriots.
“That was our third series of the year. I mean, we let them have it. We know we can beat DBU, we’ve beaten Texas Tech, we gave Texas Tech one game,” Thomson said. “We know we can beat these guys and we know we can win the regional.”
Thomson pitched the final game in DBU’s three-game sweep at Santa Ana Star field when the Lobos lost 12-11 in a high scoring affair.
Playing with confidence, working hard and playing without fear is something Birmingham has preached since joining the UNM program in 2008.
“We’re not afraid to get punched in the nose, we’re not afraid,” Birmingham said. “It’s all about the opportunity to do something special, that’s all it is.”
The New Mexico head coach said the game is out of his hands now. He said the coaching has brought them to this point and now it boils down to execution.
Birmingham stated that he doesn’t feel like the losing records are a reflection of what his team can do. He emphasized how, even at the professional level, anyone has the opportunity to beat anyone, but the Lobos will have to perform up to their capabilities.
“In baseball you beat yourself. You really don’t win as many games as somebody loses them, somebody makes mistakes,” Birmingham said. “So can we not mistakes? And when it’s the ninth inning and it’s close, we’ve got a shot.”
In the series against Dallas Baptist, the Lobos gave up 50 runs, a feat that cannot be repeated if UNM wants a shot at garnering wins in the regional tournament.
The Lobo pitching staff is coming off of some dominating performances on the mound and in the field, only allowing eight runs total in three games during the Mountain West tourney.
The head coach said that if the Lobos are able to play defense and pitch the way they did to win the conference crown, UNM will move on to Super Regionals.
“Pitching does win championships and so does defense,” Thomson said. “Offense will come. We just need to score runs, we need to play flawless defense and we need to throw a lot of strikes.”
Thomson was a co-recipient of the tournament MVP award with Louis Gonzalez. He said that while he wants to have a repeat performance like his complete game shutout against Nevada, he said all he is looking to do is throw strikes and hit his spots in the regional opener.
While Thomson said he is aware of the quality clubs at DBU and Texas Tech - two clubs in the conversation for the best teams in the nation - he said the ranking in front of the school name doesn’t mean much to him.
“The number in front of the school name, that’s just a number. That’s just there,” Thomson said, “It’s baseball. Anybody can be beaten at any time.”
Staying in the Southwest fits right into UNM’s style of play. Birmingham said he is pleased his club doesn’t have to travel west where they would be forced to play more small-ball instead of relying on the big bats up and down the lineup.
However, the coach knows the Lobos are going to have to earn respect outside of the club’s conference. He likes being labeled as an underdog.
Even though the Lobos aren’t sitting as one of the elite teams on paper at this point in the season, Birmingham added that it would be foolish for teams to look past his team that swept the conference tournament.
“I don’t think the coaches at either school will overlook us,” Birmingham said. “I know them both and they’re worried about us. They know our baseball team is respected across the country.”
Though the two Texas teams highlight the tournament, the Fairfield Stags and their 32-24 record will join the regional from Connecticut.
Opening pitch is scheduled for 5 p.m. MT at Dan Law Field in Lubbock.
Liam Cary-Eaves is the sports editor for the Daily Lobo. He primarily covers volleyball, women’s basketball and baseball. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Liam_CE.