What word best describes this year’s baseball squad — it depends on who you ask.
Jared Mang, a captain and senior outfielder for the University of New Mexico baseball team, described this Lobos team as “competitive.”
If you ask Justin Watari, a junior infielder, he’ll say “chemistry.”
And if you ask head coach Ray Birmingham how to describe this season’s team, he’ll give you a witty, yet informative, take on his players.
“Last year turned out to be white collar,” Birmingham said when a reporter pointed out that he said last year’s team was “blue collar” prior to the start of that season. “They wanted cappuccino and umbrella drinks. This team I think is blue collar.”
Nonetheless, the Lobos are looking forward to this season, despite the struggles they faced last year when the team finished a disappointing 20-33-1 and 11-19 in conference action.
It helps, too, that the Lobos are bringing back a few familiar faces — and some key ones at that. Besides Mang and Watari, Connor Mang, Hayden Schilling and Justin Slaten are all set to return, with most — if not all — getting the start during the season opener.
“It’s nice when you have guys who are coming back who have done it before and who have been out on the field,” Mang said.
As far as the pitching rotation goes, Slaten will most likely be the Lobos’ ace and will start against the defending national champion Oregon State Beavers on Friday in UNM’s season opener.
Besides Slaten, Birmingham said, Nathaniel Garley, Brian Coffey and Drew Gillespie will all start on the mound this weekend in the Lobos’ four-game slate.
But Birmingham’s biggest concern this season is being able to stay healthy. Cody Dye, a starting pitcher for the Lobos last season, underwent surgery on his right elbow this month and will miss the rest of the season.
Jared Mang has recovered from a hand injury he sustained last season, he said, which kept him out for a good portion of the season.
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Speaking on injuries, Birmingham said, “we were worried about shortstop because Hayden Schilling has a tendency to run over something and dive over something and get hurt.”
“That’s what we’re worried about now is depth,” Birmingham said, referencing last season’s injury struggles.
But the head coach also said that his team has taken steps towards remedying that, point one being Watari’s improved arm strength which can help him out at shortstop may he ever need to replace Schilling due to injury.
The Lobos have also seen new transfers this season, such as Reese O’Farrell, who will likely handle catching duties as Robby Campillo is expected to miss the season due to shoulder surgery.
UNM, by way of Birmingham, also replaced its coaching staff. Infield coach Jon Coyne and catching coach Nate Causey both come to the program to help the Lobos this season.
Also, Brandon Higelin has joined UNM’s staff as the new pitching coach, and that excites Birmingham.
“The assistant coaches that I have are off the charts,” Birmingham said. “The pitching coach, Brandon Higelin, is--I’ve seen breaking balls that have no humps on them, I’m seeing people locate, and I’m seeing an attitude on the mound about like when Dan Spencer was here -- like they’re out to get you and they’re competing.”
Mang reaffirmed that feeling, too, when he said that he’s been impressed with some of the younger guys on the pitching staff, such as Jack Murano and Tristin Lively — both of whom are freshmen.
“These guys have taken a big step here already,” Mang said, referencing the freshmen on his team. “That’s nice before we even played one season game. We feel like they kind of started to take that leap, moving on from being freshmen, wide-eyed and scared. These guys are ready to go.”
Watari didn’t enjoy the losing his team endured a season ago. But so far this season, he’s noticed a change in tune.
“Going on that losing streak last year it felt as a team atmosphere more like (we were) trying to win, and now this year with the guys we brought in and the core we brought back, it’s more like we expect to win.”
The Lobos will face Oregon State on Friday in their season opener. They’ll round it out with games against Minnesota on Saturday and Gonzaga on Sunday, before facing the Beavers again on Monday at the conclusion of the tournament in Surprise, Arizona.
Birmingham, like always, has a certain goal in mind -- and that’s capturing the Mountain West title, then on to Omaha.
“A Mountain West title,” Birmingham said. “If we can get that, get into the regional, get into the tournament, I mean, then we’re back to who we were.”
Matthew Narvaiz is a senior writer for the Daily Lobo. He helps with basketball and baseball coverage. He can be reached at or on Twitter @matt_narvaiz.