Lobo baseball gets a chance to turn the page - Albuquerque Journal

Lobo baseball gets a chance to turn the page

UNM’s Jared Mang (15) and Andre Vigil (25) high-five teammates after their home victory on Saturday over Nevada that clinched the Mountain West Conference regular season baseball title for the Lobos. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

 

Mountain West Conference tournament baseball bracket

Ray Birmingham couldn’t bear to watch.

As members of the University of New Mexico baseball team crowded around a clubhouse television late Saturday afternoon, the program’s 10th-year head coach sat alone on a stairway outside.

Birmingham’s Lobos had already defeated visiting Nevada 13-6 in their regular-season finale, but they needed help to secure a Mountain West title. Fresno State accommodated with an 11-2 romp over San Diego State, but Birmingham did not see the final outs.

“My nerves can’t take it,” he said. “I’ll just sit here and listen. The boys will let me know what happens.”

About 10 minutes later they did. A roar went up as Fresno State polished off its victory.

After struggling through key injuries and a stressful five-game losing skid, Birmingham and the Lobos (29-25-1) could celebrate. As league champs they’ll host the Mountain West tournament beginning Thursday at Santa Ana Star Field with an automatic NCAA Tournament berth at stake. The top-seeded Lobos face No. 4 Nevada (19-34) in the first round of the double-elimination event.

“That’s what we’ve been after the whole year,” senior Andre Vigil said. “The last couple weeks were rough, but we kept our heads on straight and stayed one unit. That’s what you have to do when things go bad.”

Big contributions from unexpected sources didn’t hurt either.

Vigil, an occasional starter and frequent outfield defensive replacement this season, tripled, scored twice and threw out a Nevada runner at the plate Saturday.

Senior Matt Villalobos, who had all of 10 previous at-bats in his UNM career, blasted a ground-rule double and a go-ahead three-run homer.

Senior Johnathon Tripp, who left his previous start with tingling in his right pitching elbow and underwent an MRI on Friday, did not figure to pitch in the Nevada series. Tests revealed minor nerve impingement that will limit Tripp’s pitch count the rest of the season.

He missed his normal start Friday but came out of the bullpen in the sixth inning Saturday, allowing one run over the final four innings for the win. Tripp (6-2) threw 53 pitches.

“My arm feels pretty good,” Tripp said afterward. “I’m glad it held up. The biggest thing for me was controlling the adrenaline coming out of the bullpen. I’m not used to that.”

Tripp, in his first season as a Lobo since transferring from Texas Tech, had pitched in relief just once previously, in UNM’s first game of the season. He figures to get the call again in this week’s conference tournament – elbow permitting.

Birmingham, in fact, may have to pull off a lineup juggling act if his Lobos are to capture a second straight Mountain West tournament title. For example, Villalobos, who hadn’t played first base for more than three seasons until Saturday, could easily line up there again in the absence of injured starter Jack Zoellner.

But Birmingham will be glad to do it. After hearing his players cheer San Diego State’s final out Saturday he briefly joined them in the locker room for a huddle.

“Just keep fighting, boys,” he said with a broad smile. “Just keep fighting.”

Vigil, an Albuquerque native, is delighted to have a few more games at home.

“If the (MWC) tournament was in San Diego,” he said, “we probably would have had to take a bus. Playing here is 100 percent better.”

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