Nobody was more surprised than New Mexico coach Ray Birmingham when Mountain West coaches voted the Lobos first in the league’s preseason poll. After all, New Mexico lost three of its top four hitters (Chase Harris, John Pustay and Alex Real) plus innings leader Josh Walker from a club that tied for the MWC regular-season title, and the Lobos would rely heavily on newcomers in 2015.
But the coaches poll was a testament to the quality of the program Birmingham has built and the respect his Lobos have earned from the rest of the league. Everyone simply assumed New Mexico would reload and compete for the MWC title again.
They were right.The precocious Lobos are off to a 9-4 start, with two wins against Oregon State and a 4-2 mark in conference play, which includes a series win this past weekend against fellow MWC power San Diego State. That series win reaffirms New Mexico’s status as a Mountain West heavyweight heading into its big series this weekend against Nevada (13-3 overall, 5-1 in MWC).
“I know everybody picked us to win the conference, and I was shocked,” Birmingham said. “I went, ‘Why? You guys got all the juniors and seniors. I’m still changing diapers in the dugout.’
“We’re a very young team. We’re a brand-new team. And we’re playing in a league that’s got a bunch of old teams. We haven’t found ourselves yet, and this is fun. This is a lot of fun, especially with young kids, teaching all the time, teaching every pitch, making big leaguers, you hope. It’s really, really exciting.”
New Mexico is leaning upon a talented freshman at the crucial catcher position, and Cory Voss has been up to the challenge so far. He’s handling the pitching staff well and also providing run production in the lineup, hitting .333/.405/.485 with 11 RBIs.
Two other freshmen, two-way player Luis Gonzalez and corner infielder Carl Stajduhar, have quickly become key pieces in the middle of the lineup along with Voss. Birmingham said the ball jumps of Stajduhar’s bat, and he is a solid defender with a strong arm. He has not yet started to hit for average but does provide some pop and has driven in 11 runs.
Gonzalez brings speed and arm strength to the outfield mix and depth to the bullpen. He’s a 6.7-second runner in the 60-yard dash, making him one of several good runners in the UNM lineup. Veteran third baseman Jared Holly is a 6.6 runner, catcher Lane Milligan is a 6.7 runner, center fielder Aaron Siple can run a 6.6, second baseman Sam Haggerty is a blazing runner who has been clocked at 6.3 in the 60, and left fielder Danny Collier (the 2014 MWC freshman of the year) has 6.5 speed. Collier struggled early in the season, and the New Mexico coaches worked with him on pulling the ball more. Birmingham said the Aztecs tried to pitch him in, assuming he was trying to go the other way with everything, and he made them pay by turning on balls and going 4-for-5 in Saturday’s 11-10 win.
The Lobos don’t have the kind of power that has been their calling card in years past, but their athleticism and team speed is a weapon.
“We went to that in the recruiting process because of the dead bats and dead balls,” Birmingham said. “We wanted the fast guys so we didn’t go for size. Now the game’s changed back a little bit, so you’ve got to make a little adjustment.”
The main power threat in the lineup has become sophomore DH/first baseman Chris DeVito, who is hitting .364/.453/.705 with four homers and 16 RBIs, leading the team in each category. A high school teammate of Holley’s in California, DeVito had some Division II and NAIA offers but wanted to play D-I, so he walked on at UNM, Birmingham said. He has blossomed into a real offensive threat as a sophomore.
“Every kid coming out of high school has a bad swing -- they get away with long and strong. That’s what he was -- he didn’t have a clue what he can do,” Birmingham said. “But now he’s really short, he really, really waits, and if he can square it up, he’s got unbelievable juice. The ball jumps off his bat different than most people. When he learned to use the top hand, he figured that out. Right now the game’s pretty easy for him. He’s hit some good pitchers.”
New Mexico has just three upperclassmen with meaningful Division I experience in the everyday lineup: Siple, Holley and Haggerty. The latter two were preseason all-MWC selections, but both have gotten off to slow starts, hitting .212 and .233, respectively.
“Holley and Haggerty are the two guys we’re counting on, and they’re really struggling,” Birmingham said. “I call that a little bit of draftitis, trying to do too much. They’re gonna settle down and get it.”
When they do, this offense will be even better. It’s very encouraging that New Mexico is winning even without much production from that duo.
The pitching remains a work in progress too, but junior college transfer Toller Boardman (a bounceback from Texas) has settled in as a very reliable ace atop the rotation. After allowing just one run in 6.1 innings last week against SDSU’s potent offense, the lefthander improved to 3-0, a 2.88 ERA with 25 strikeouts and just two walks in 25 innings. Superb control is his calling card.
“He sits 86-90, can get to 91-92, but mainly he’s got a plus slider, plus curveball, plus command, plus changeup,” Birmingham said. “His command is his thing. He’s like his juco alum, Andy Pettitte. He can locate and he can pitch. He’s really not a strikeout guy; he’s a guy that gets you out.”
No. 2 starter Colton Thomson (1-1, 4.63), a holdover from last year’s rotation, has not been as sharp with his command in the first month, working up in the zone too much with his upper-80s fastball. But he has a good slider and changeup, and he really competes. The Lobos need to get more out of righthander Drew Bridges, who has struggled as the No. 3 starter. He has the best arm on the team, with a hard sinker at 92-93 and a good slider when he’s on, but he has really struggled with his command. Birmingham is optimistic that his fine pitching coach, Dan Spencer, will get him back on track, but in the meantime the Lobos may give freshman Tyler Stevens a chance on Sundays. He threw three scoreless innings in a tuneup start Tuesday against Stephen F. Austin, and Birmingham likes his ability to command his 90-91 fastball and good breaking ball.
The Lobos have plenty of room for growth, and that’s a good thing. Birmingham’s teams typically play better in the second half of the season than they do early, in large part because the coaching staff is very good at helping players reach their potential. The talent is in place, and the more experience the young Lobos gain, the better they should be.
“There are a lot of interesting kids on this team, we’re just trying to get everybody to find themselves at the same time,” Birmingham said. “But the good thing is different guys are helping us win every day.
“Baseball is a .500 sport. If you play it right every day, everybody pushing the rock in the same direction, you got a shot to pull off a miracle. That’s what I love.”
It won’t be a miracle if the Lobos win the Mountain West again -- after all, that’s what the rest of the league expected them to do. Those lofty expectations come along with winning, and this program has proven it simply knows how to win.