No. 13 New Mexico enters MWC tournament with ‘nothing to prove’
Anyone for a bus tour of scenic California?
As six-hour bus rides go, the UNM baseball team’s excursion from San Diego to Fresno on Monday was a relaxing experience.
The Lobos are enjoying a few days between Saturday’s regular-season finale (an 11-7 win over San Diego State) and their Mountain West Conference tournament opener. UNM’s first game in the six-team, double-elimination tournament will be Thursday.
MWC Tournament at Fresno State: No. 13 UNM vs. TBD, 8 p.m., 101.7 FM
Typically, this is a high-stress time for teams seeking an invitation to NCAA Regionals. Not so for New Mexico.
The Lobos rolled into Fresno fresh off the most dominant regular season in MWC history. They finished 25-5, won all 10 conference series and won the league by seven games over second-place UNLV.
Those accomplishments, along with a midseason 14-game league winning streak, are all Mountain West Conference records.
As a result, Lobo coach Ray Birmingham feels his team has nothing to prove this week.
“I think we’re in the NCAA Tournament,” Birmingham said. “We’re still here to win, don’t get me wrong, but I think our résumé is strong enough right now to get us into Regionals.”
UNM (35-18) climbed to No. 13 in Monday’s Baseball America poll, the highest ranking in any poll in program history. The Lobos also climbed a spot to 16th in the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper poll and are receiving votes (unofficially 27th) in this week’s ESPN Coaches poll.
Birmingham had mixed emotions about the No. 13 ranking.
“Man, lucky 13, I’m trying not to think about that number,” he joked. “Seriously though, it’s nice because it reinforces that New Mexico is a good baseball program. But it’s still 12 away from the number I want.”
The Lobos are in a good position as the MWC tournament’s No. 1 seed. They and UNLV receive first-round byes and will play the winners of Wednesday’s San Diego State-Air Force and Nevada-Fresno State games. UNM will draw the lowest seed to win Wednesday, meaning it will face either No. 6 Air Force, No. 4 Fresno State or No. 5 Nevada. San Diego State is the No. 3 seed in the six-team league.
Birmingham’s team has reason to be motivated as a tournament championship could enhance its seeding position for NCAA Regionals. New Mexico also hopes to capture a third straight MWC tournament title and perhaps bump up its RPI ranking (47th this week) a few notches.
Still, Birmingham does not believe a mediocre RPI number will impact his team’s NCAA chances.
“The NCAA considers five things,” Birmingham said, “and RPI is just one of them. They consider how you performed in conference, whether you’re hot at the end of the season, national ranking and strength of schedule. We’re solid on four out of five.”
In addition to dominating the Mountain West, UNM won 18 of its final 20 games and played a strong non-conference schedule.
Perhaps the Lobos can afford to relax a little after all.
“Hey, finals are over and it’s all about baseball now,” senior pitcher Sam Wolff said. “This is when it’s supposed to be fun.”
CAMPBELL HONORED: Lobo senior outfielder Luke Campbell was named MWC player of the Week on Monday after going 5-for-12 in UNM’s three wins at San Diego State. Campbell hit two home runs in the series, including a grand slam, scored three runs and drove in seven. He also extended a career-best hitting streak to 14 games.