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UNM baseball plays the waiting game

University of New Mexico baseball coach Ray Birmingham said he hopes the NCAA will provide an additional year of eligibility to spring sport athletes, especially seniors. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

The University of New Mexico baseball team went from Austin, Texas, to limbo in a matter of days.

What’s next, no one really knows.

The Lobos, who were 14-4 and had a promising season cut short this month because of coronavirus restrictions, are now stuck playing a waiting game. Along with spring-sports athletes from every other Division I school, UNM baseball players are putting long-term plans on the back burner.

Uncertainty reigns as players and coaches await the answers to key questions. Will student-athletes be given an additional year of eligibility? If so, how will that impact roster limits, incoming freshmen and junior college transfers? Will collegiate summer leagues operate as usual? Will Major League Baseball, as has been rumored, postpone or cancel its 2020 amateur draft?

It’s a lot to contemplate, especially for UNM players who on March 12 had arrived in Austin ready to play a series against nationally ranked Texas.

“When they told us our season was canceled, it didn’t feel real,” Lobo senior pitcher Nathaniel Garley said, “especially with the team being hot and everyone excited about where this season could go.

“Now, no one has any answers and we’re all just trying to deal with these larger issues. I don’t want to stress out too much about baseball, but it’s a weird feeling not knowing what’s going to happen.”

Some answers could arrive this week. The NCAA Division I Council is scheduled to vote Monday on whether to allow eligibility relief for student-athletes whose seasons were canceled. The council’s leadership group on March 13 announced a finding that additional eligibility would be appropriate for spring sports athletes.

The specifics of potential eligibility relief have yet to be determined. It has been widely suggested that only seniors will be given an extra year.

UNM’s baseball program, which has just three seniors (Garley, infielder Justin Watari and outfielder Tanner Baker) on its active roster, would face relatively little impact from that sort of eligibility ruling. New Mexico State, by comparison, has nine 2020 seniors.

But for some players, returning for an extra season of baseball is not that simple. Garley, for example, is on track to graduate in May.

“I’m still hoping to play at the next level,” the Eldorado High alumnus said, “but that’s really up in the air right now. Coming back (to UNM) for another season might end up being a good option.”

Kyle Landers, meanwhile, has other alternatives to consider. The junior-college transfer from McKinney, Texas, finished his abbreviated first season at UNM as the Mountain West Conference leader in batting average (.417), on-base percentage (.532) and RBIs (18) despite playing with a shoulder injury that could require surgery.

“I have appointments with doctors and trainers coming up,” Landers said. “If my shoulder does need surgery, I have to decide if I should do it now or wait. It kind of depends on everything else that’s happening.”

Landers admits losing most of his first Division I baseball season was frustrating, especially with UNM playing well. He hopes the NCAA will provide eligibility relief to spring sports athletes, “especially seniors.”

UNM baseball coach Ray Birmingham agreed, but he said he does not necessarily favor increased roster limits, which would increase scholarship costs for college athletic programs already facing shortfalls because of COVID-19 restrictions.

“I think you give seniors an extra year,” he said, “but you’ll still have new guys coming into the program. I think you have everyone compete for roster spots, more like pro ball, because baseball isn’t like football. You can’t put guys on special teams or rotate them in here and there. Only nine guys are in the lineup. Having five extra guys on your bench who probably won’t play is not helpful.”

With so much uncertainty surrounding college sports, it’s hard to predict how closely UNM’s 2021 baseball team will resemble the 2020 version. But having had time to process things, Landers is optimistic.

“We’ve all kind of accepted that our season is over and why it had to be,” he said. “We’ll get through this together and our chemistry could be stronger than ever. I think most of these guys will be back.”

NOTES: Though no conference games were played this season, UNM ranked first in the Mountain West in team batting average (.297), runs (126) and RBIs (107). Landers (.417), Kyler Castillo (.400) and Harry Fullerton (.375) ranked first, second and fifth, respectively in hitting. Castillo’s 30 hits led the MWC and ranked second nationally.

UNM pitchers ranked second in MWC team earned-run average (4.48) and first in strikeouts (155). Justin Armbruester led the conference in ERA (1.14) and in fewest walks (3), and ranked fifth in strikeouts (24).

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