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Experience, Depth Raise Expectations

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UNM baseball team returns six everyday players, solid pitching

Rudy Jaramillo could end up as a poster boy for the 2012 UNM baseball team.

Lobo fans may recall Jaramillo, a left-handed starting pitcher, dazzling 10th-ranked Arizona State for eight-plus innings in an NCAA Regional battle last June. Jaramillo scattered four hits and carried a 2-1 lead to the ninth but ended up with no decision in ASU’s 4-2 comeback win.

Based on that outing, one might think Jaramillo a lock to start next week’s season-opener against Nevada. Such is not the case.

Season opener
Feb. 17, Nevada at UNM, Isotopes Park, 3 p.m.

“Rudy will probably be starting midweek games,” Lobo coach Ray Birmingham said during Wednesday’s preseason media day. “He’s obviously good enough to start on weekends, but right now he’s at the back of our rotation. That’s good news for us.”

Pitching-staff upgrades have helped boost Lobo expectations after what could only be described as a bizarre 2011 baseball season. Yes, the Lobos swept to a Mountain West Conference tournament title and advanced to NCAA Regionals for a second straight year. And yes, UNM finished with a 20-41 overall record.

To a man, the Lobos prefer – and expect – to avoid a repeat performance.

“We learned a lot last year,” senior second baseman Kyle Stiner said. “We struggled most of the season and it wasn’t a lot of fun, but we showed what kind of team we could be when it counted. This year we can start with that experience.”

Experience is what Birmingham is depending on to help UNM avoid last season’s struggles. In 2011 the Lobos opened with one returning position player, then-sophomore Alex Allbritton, who had moved from third base to shortstop. In 2012 UNM will open with at least six returning starters on the field.

“The first year in Division I is tough for young kids,” Birmingham said. “We had a lot of guys go through that last year when we were playing one of the toughest schedules in the country. We got beat up.”

The 2012 schedule has a few Goliaths, including Arizona State, Oklahoma and Gonzaga, but those teams will be coming to Albuquerque. UNM also has home-and-home series with perennial power TCU, but overall its schedule is not as daunting.

“Last year we had a lot of close games and proved we could play with those teams,” Stiner said. “This year we need to beat some of them.”

Step one will be to improve an offense that did not approach Birmingham’s usual standards. After finishing among the national leaders in hitting each of Birmingham’s first three seasons, the Lobos struggled at the plate in 2011. They hit .271 as a team with just 18 home runs and 304 runs scored. UNM’s 2010 numbers, by comparison, were .346 with 40 homers and 494 runs scored.

“With all the new guys we had and the teams we played, we were a little intimidated,” sophomore first baseman D.J. Peterson said. “Now we’re ready to take the bull by the horns.”

Peterson was the Lobos’ leading hitter last season and set an NCAA record for doubles (32) in a season by a freshman. He was named to two freshman All-American teams and is a third-team Louisville Slugger All-American pick this preseason.

He’ll be joined on the Lobo infield by Stiner, Allbritton, junior catcher Mitchell Garver and a third baseman to be determined. Returning starters Luke Campbell and Ben Woodchick (both seniors) will anchor two outfield spots.

“I think our everyday lineup will be solid,” Peterson said, “offensively and defensively.”

Then there’s the pitching staff. Birmingham pegged juniors Austin House, Sam Wolff and sophomore Jake McCasland as his weekend starters. All are right-handers with power arms. The bullpen has experienced at the back end with right-handers Bobby Mares, a junior, and senior Gera Sanchez.

That leaves Jaramillo and sophomore righty Alexis Garza, two of last season’s mainstays, pitching on weekdays. For his part, Jaramillo doesn’t mind.

“Our staff is deeper and it’s going to be great competition for roles,” he said. “That can only help the team. It’s not a bad problem for our pitching coach (Dave Martinez) to have.”
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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