Backstop Psychologist

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UNM coach says Garver is ‘the greatest catcher in Lobo history’

It started with a baseball tied to a rope.

Day after day Jerry Garver would swing the ball lasso-style in the front yard of his family’s Northeast Albuquerque home to help his young son, Mitch, practice hitting.

It was the mid-1990s and Mitch was just getting started in baseball, playing tee ball at Eastdale Little League when the complex was still located in a now-commercial area near I-25 and Jefferson Street.

Today No. 17 UNM vs. Air Force at Lobo Field, 3:05 p.m., 101.7 FM (Saturday and Sunday, 1:05 p.m.)

Specific game memories have faded but Mitch’s feelings about those days remain vivid.

“Baseball was just fun back then,” Garver said. “It was the highlight of the day, putting on my uniform and hat and going to the ballpark.”

Garver has spent countless days at New Mexico ballparks since, but his in-state finale could be fast approaching. The senior All-America catcher for the University of New Mexico baseball team will play his last home series this weekend against Air Force.

It’s hardly the end of Garver’s career. The 17th-ranked Lobos have six road games, the Mountain West Conference tournament and a possible NCAA Tournament run ahead.

And when UNM’s season is done, Garver figures to start another. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound backstop is a highly rated professional prospect almost certain to hear his name called in June’s major league draft.

“I have no doubt he’ll go,” Lobo coach Ray Birmingham said, “and probably early. Mitch has everything you need to succeed at the next level: talent, intelligence and an unbelievable work ethic. He’ll be playing for a long time.”

Winning touch

Garver has already proven to be an ironman at UNM. He’s started in a school-record 166 consecutive games dating to his freshman season.

Making the streak more remarkable is that the vast majority of Garver’s starts have come at catcher, a position well known for its physical and mental demands.

“It doesn’t wear me down,” Garver said, “not anymore. I’m used to it.”

Garver got started behind the plate early and it wasn’t by accident.

“My granddad was a softball catcher for the Albuquerque Roadrunners,” Garver said. “He got me my first catcher’s helmet when I was 10 years old. I’m still thankful for that.”

It didn’t take Garver long to become accustomed to catcher’s gear – or to winning. He earned a spot on Eastdale Little League’s All-Star team and was part of a state-championship run in 2002.

“I caught every game,” he recalled.

A few years later Garver joined La Cueva High School’s successful baseball program. (He also played soccer for the Bears.)

UNM catcher Mitch Garver puts on his mask during the game against UNLV at Lobo Field on Friday, April 26, 2013.

UNM catcher Mitch Garver puts on his mask during the game against UNLV at Lobo Field on Friday, April 26, 2013.

As one might expect, Garver’s top prep memories include winning a state championship during his junior season in 2008. He also remembers delivering a walk-off hit against Rio Grande star and UNM teammate-to-be Oscar Almeida in the 2009 Albuquerque Metro Tournament final.

But Garver also is unlikely to forget his final high school game. Current Lobo teammate and former Rio Rancho High pitcher Josh Walker won’t allow it.

“It was a tie game, bottom of the sixth,” Garver said with a sigh, recalling the 2009 Class 5A final at Isotopes Park. “Walker was pitching and I was on second base. There was a base hit up the middle and I thought, ‘I’m scoring.’ ”

Rio Rancho’s Devon Conley had other ideas, nailing Garver at the plate with a perfect throw. The Rams went on to win.

“Josh Walker loves to talk, especially about that game,” Garver said. “It’s a good thing we’re teammates.”

Raising the bar

Garver earned All-State and honorable mention All-America honors in high school but received a reality check in his first season at UNM. He was stuck behind All-American Rafael Neda on the catching depth chart and started just 11 games, some in left field.

“That year was important to me because I learned I’m not the best player to walk the Earth,” Garver said.

Still, Garver got his feet wet on a team that ultimately snapped New Mexico’s 62-year NCAA Regional drought and upset Stanford in its first postseason game.

One year later, Neda was playing professionally, and Garver became the Lobos’ regular starting catcher.

It wasn’t a highlight-filled season. UNM was dragged down by inconsistent play and a brutal schedule and limped to the MWC tournament with a 16-39 record.

“We didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of making the NCAAs,” Garver said. “But we came together, played four days of great baseball and shocked everybody. It was truly inspiring.”

Garver downplays his role in that 2011 tournament, but Birmingham believes it was pivotal. The sophomore effectively willed and cajoled what had been a mediocre pitching staff through four outstanding days of work.

“He’s a psychologist out there,” Birmingham said, “which is lost art for catchers. He not only works well with pitchers, he makes them better.”

In the past two seasons Garver has established himself as a dominant player. He shared MWC Co-Player of the Year honors with teammate D.J. Peterson in 2012 and was named second-team All-American as the Lobos won both regular-season and conference-tournament championships for the first time.

Garver’s senior season has had ups and downs. The minuses included UNM’s 7-10 start and Garver suffering a broken nose when he was hit in the face by an errant San Diego State relay throw.

Both the Lobos and their catcher bounced back. Garver was back in the lineup a day after his injury and has helped his team put together a 20-7 surge that included a 10-game winning streak and a climb into the national polls.

UNM goes into this weekend’s series with a five-game lead in the MWC standings and is closing in on a regular-season title. More important to Garver, he and co-seniors Alex Allbritton and Gabe Aguilar could become the first Lobos to experience four straight NCAA Regionals.

“I think we have a great chance to go farther than any UNM team has,” Garver said.

If so, Garver could be wearing New Mexico on his chest well into June. But whenever his in-state baseball rope runs out, Birmingham believes Garver will own a special distinction.

“There have been some great catchers at UNM, no doubt,” Birmingham said. “But for my money Mitch Garver’s got to go down as the greatest catcher in Lobo history. He’s just that good.”