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UNM baseball gets a fresh start vs. a familiar foe

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Surprise, Arizona, is familiar turf for the University of New Mexico baseball team, even if it’s not always friendly.

The Lobos will open the 2020 season there Friday, facing No. 25 Oregon State as part of the annual Collegiate Baseball Classic. UNM will take on BYU for a doubleheader Saturday and conclude the tournament Sunday against Gonzaga.

Friday’s opener feels especially familiar as New Mexico will battle Oregon State in Surprise for a third straight year. The Beavers were ranked seventh nationally last season and defeated the Lobos by 6-5 and 5-0 scores. UNM defeated Minnesota and Gonzaga in its other two tournament games.

Based on last season’s overall results, UNM won’t enter the 2020 classic as a favorite. The Lobos finished 23-28-1 while its three opponents had solid seasons. Oregon State (36-20-1) advanced to NCAA Regionals, BYU (36-17) won the West Coast Conference regular-season title, and Gonzaga (31-24) knocked the Cougars out of the WCC tournament.

Still, UNM coach Ray Birmingham likes the idea of throwing his team into an early fire.

“You take on some of the better teams in the country right away and it prepares you for the rest of the season,” Birmingham said. “If you come back with some wins, even better.”

UNM’s three opponents all have more returnees than do the Lobos, who restocked their roster with freshmen and junior college transfers. It’s a highly touted recruiting class, however, and the Lobos are looking forward to testing themselves.

“Last year was hard,” senior second baseman Justin Watari said, “but this program has an established culture of playing good teams and competing for Mountain West championships. This year feels like that again.”

Watari is expected to be the only senior in UNM’s starting lineup against the Beavers. He’ll also be the only Lobo to start in a position he played last season.

Redshirt junior Connor Mang has switched from infield to outfield, and everyone else in New Mexico’s projected hitting lineup is new to the program. As of Thursday, Birmingham expected to start nine juniors, including starting right-handed pitcher Cody Dye.

Dye is not new to the program but sat out last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his pitching arm. It was uncertain whether Dye would be ready to start the season or whether he would begin it in the bullpen, but recent events changed the timetable.

“He’s thrown intrasquads and his last bullpen outing was impeccable,” Birmingham said. “Cody may not go too deep in games for a while but it’s great having him back. He’s an experienced starter who knows how to handle big moments. That’s what you want for opening day.”

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