UNM baseball taking positive strides

For the first time in several seasons, there’s a definite sense of optimism inside the University of New Mexico baseball clubhouse.

Things are building again.

Coach Ray Birmingham feels good about his 2020 squad. The Lobos will open practice in January with just a handful of returning starters but an infusion of talent from a junior college recruting class that was ranked 17th nationally and a freshman signing group listed 83rd by Perfect Game.

“We’ll have five position players who could get drafted in June,” Birmingham said, “and probably four to five pitchers. We expect to be good. That mentality is back.”

It gets better. UNM recently inked a 21-member 2020 freshman recruiting class ranked 33rd nationally, the best mark in program history.

Such rankings guarantee nothing but they do bode well. UNM’s previous best recruiting class was rated 38th in 2011. That group of Lobos helped the program win three regular-season Mountain West titles and make two NCAA Regional appearances.

“The next few years will be night and day compared to the last two or three,” Birmingham said.

Those last two seasons have easily been the most trying of Birmingham’s 12-year tenure. Not only did the Lobos post back-to-back losing seasons (43-61-2 combined), they also endured the devastating loss of teammate Jackson Weller, who was killed in a Nob Hill-area shooting last May. Another player, catcher Colton Onstott, transferred out of the program after his truck was stolen at gunpoint prior to last season.

Recruiting also suffered because Birmingham’s contract expired after the 2018 season and he spent several months working on a month-to-month basis before finally signing an extension.

“It was hard getting kids to commit when they didn’t know if I was going to be here,” Birmingham said. “We had some serious problems, no doubt, but we’re overcoming them. We’re getting back to where Lobo baseball should be.”

Birmingham gives much of the credit to assistant coach/recruiting coordinator Jon Coyne, who joined the program in 2018 along with pitching coach Brandon Higelin. The architect of UNM’s strong recruiting classes, Coyne said New Mexico’s program has more to sell than it did in recent years, including facility improvements.

When the 2020 season concludes, UNM is scheduled to start upgrades at Santa Ana Star Field using state-allocated money. They will include additional bleachers extending behind each dugout, 250 stadium seats installed behind home plate, sound system improvements and new outfield fencing. The total pricetag will be roughly $750,000, Birmingham said.

Equally important is a sense of stability. Birmingham has two years left on a three-year deal.

“Yeah, that was an issue with recruits when (Birmingham) didn’t have a contract,” Coyne said. “It’s not a real factor now. I tell kids that (Higelin) and I just jumped onto this staff and moved here. We plan to be here a while.”

Birmingham chuckled when asked if he planned to outlast his recruiting classes.

“We’ll see,” he said, “but I like where we’re headed now. If you look at what we’ve got happening for the next two years, there’s no doubt: if I want to stay, I’ll stay.”

PLAYERS TO WATCH: UNM’s JC class for 2020 includes three players picked in last summer’s MLB draft who opted not to sign.

Infielder Mack Chambers (11th round, Chicago Cubs) is a switch-hitter who batted .404 with eight home runs and 64 RBIs for Seminole State College last season. Right-handed pitchers Will Duncan (Grayson College) and Riley Egloff (Yavapai College) were selected by the San Diego Padres (29th round) and Miami Marlins (36th round), respectively.

The Lobos will have to hope their 2020 freshmen commits do not end up being drafted and signing pro contracts. That class includes highly touted shortstop Jorge Figueroa of Southlake, Texas, along with five New Mexico players (Mason Ashcraft, RHP, St. Pius; Ethan Silcox, SS, Rio Rancho; Isaiah Ural, OF, Volcano Vista; Roy Jennings, OF, Cleveland; Chase Weissenborn, SS, Abq. Academy).

SCHEDULE SET: UNM recently released its 2020 schedule, one which looks drastically different than recent editions. With Boise State joining the league, Mountain West baseball teams play just 18 league games and have more non-conference contests.

UNM will face College World Series qualifier Texas Tech for four games and will play a three-game series at Texas. The Lobos will again open against Oregon State in Surprise, Arizona, and will play six games (four at home) against BYU.

BANQUET: ESPN baseball analyst Tim Kurkjian will be the headline speaker at UNM’s 2020 First Pitch Banquet, Jan. 24 at Sandia Golf Club. For more information or to purchase tickets or an MVP sponsorship, contact Paige at 505-250-8489 or pblomker@mindspring.com.

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