Brief but effective.
That’s how University of New Mexico baseball coach Ray Birmingham summed up his team’s fall practice session. The Lobos shut things down earlier this month when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham tightened the state’s coronavirus restrictions, limiting gatherings to five people.
It wasn’t a major blow, Birmingham said.
“We saw what we needed to see,” he said. “We got 12 scrimmages in and that was really enough. COVID restrictions cost us a little developmental time but we’re in good shape. Hopefully we can make progress fighting this virus over the next three months.”
UNM is tentatively scheduled to open a Mountain West-heavy schedule in mid-February. The conference recently opted for a full home-and-home slate of three-game series among its seven baseball programs. That would mean 36 conference games and 11 non-conference contests, if there are no further changes.
It makes things expensive for UNM, which would have to fly to every MWC road destination except Air Force. The Mountain West had trimmed its conference schedule in recent seasons, allowing teams to play more regional opponents. The Lobos were scheduled to play 21 MWC games last season before the NCAA canceled spring sports in March.
The coronavirus has since taken a heavy toll. Boise State cut its recently revived baseball program, leaving the Mountain West with seven. The conference also suspended its postseason tournament for 2021 and will name a champion based on regular-season play.
Birmingham said he understands the adjustments but he doesn’t think they bode well for UNM or the league.
“First, it’s a lot more expensive than the schedule we would have played,” he said, “and it requires a lot of air travel, which was something we were hoping to avoid. Plus, playing so many conference games takes RPI off the table for us. We’ll get one team to the NCAA Tournament, that’s it.”
Still, other conferences also intend to limit their members’ non-conference dates, limiting scheduling opportunities. UNM currently has non-conference series set against Rice, Army and Utah Valley along with two single games against New Mexico State.
With coronavirus cases surging of late, the 2021 schedule is far from set in stone. Still, Birmingham remains hopeful that some sort of season will be possible, particularly after getting a fall glimpse of his roster.
“Last year was pretty good,” he said of a UNM squad that was 14-4 when the season was canceled. “This year looks better.”
For the second straight year, New Mexico’s class of junior college transfers was ranked 12th nationally by JUCO blog JCC Sports. Infielders Mack Chambers III and Willie Cano, both highly touted recruits, were particularly impressive in the fall session, Birmingham said.
Everything depends, of course, on where the pandemic stands in early 2021. Birmingham prefers to stay positive.
“Things have to get back to some sort of normal eventually,” he said. “All we can do is follow the protocols and be as prepared as possible.”
LOCAL INFLUX: UNM is expecting to receive several National Letters of Intent from 2021 prep seniors in November. Birmingham’s program also has received verbal commitments from a number of high school juniors. The latter list includes three Albuquerque players who announced their commitments on social media and are rated among the state’s top four 2022 recruits according to Perfect Game
They are: Adrien Martin (IF/RHP, Sandia High School); Henry Mitchell (IF/RHP, Abq. Academy); and Jordan Martinez (IF/C/RHP, Sandia). Birmingham confirmed UNM is recruiting all three players. NCAA rules prohibit coaches from otherwise commenting on unsigned players.