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Zoellner’s injury has Lobo baseball scrambling

Jack Zoellner might not be irreplaceable in the University of New Mexico baseball team’s lineup, but the senior first baseman’s spikes are tough to fill.

The Lobos found that out the hard way last weekend. Zoellner was struck on the hand with a pitch in the first inning of the opener of a three-game series at Fresno State. He left the game, did not return in the series and UNM never recovered, getting swept in a Mountain West set for the first time this season.

Zoellner said he suffered a fractured metacarpal bone and is expected to be sidelined for roughly six weeks, meaning he’s likely played his final game in a Lobo uniform.

“It’s frustrating,” Zoellner said, “especially that it happened this close to postseason. I hate not being able to help the team.”

Zoellner has done plenty to help the Lobos in 2017. He leads them in slugging percentage (.663) and ranks second in batting average (.368), home runs (12) and third in RBIs (56).

Equally important, the left-handed hitting Zoellner is a standout defensive first baseman and has not taken many days off during his UNM career. He started all of the Lobos’ first 50 games at first this season and started 58 of 59 in 2016.

As a result, the team has been scrambling to fill the position in Zoellner’s absence. Relief pitcher Brandon Langan (a first baseman in junior college) took over for Zoellner on Friday, and normal third baseman Carl Stajduhar moved to first for the final two games of the Fresno State series. Andre Gregory, who has played primarily at shortstop, was taking grounders at first base during Tuesday’s practice.

How will the Lobos’ infield line up moving forward?

“That’s what we’re trying to figure out,” coach Ray Birmingham said. “I feel like we’re better with Carl at third, but we’ll just have to see. We’re trying a few different combinations.”

Birmingham said Zoellner’s injury had an emotional impact on the Lobos, and senior Danny Collier agreed.

“Everyone knows Jack is one of our centerpieces,” Collier said. “For that to happen in the first inning like that, it was tough.”

Still, Collier expects the Lobos (28-23-1, 18-7-1 Mountain West) to regroup for this week’s critical home series against Nevada (17-32, 11-15). UNM leads San Diego State by a half-game going into the final regular-season series and the MWC’s regular-season champion will host next week’s conference tournament.

“We’ve had adversity before and overcome it,” Collier said. “We’ve got to do it again, get rolling for Jack and get him a (conference championship) ring.”

Zoellner’s wasn’t the only injury that hampered UNM at Fresno State. Starting pitcher Johnathon Tripp exited Saturday’s game in the third inning after experiencing “tingling” in his right (pitching) elbow, Birmingham said.

Tripp (5-2, 5.45 ERA) has since thrown in the bullpen without discomfort, Birmingham said, and is likely to start Friday’s second game against Nevada. If Tripp cannot go, lefty Carson Schneider will start.

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