Sunny skies, enthusiastic fans and the loud clink of metallic baseball bats.
Saturday’s doubleheader against Air Force was a long-awaited opportunity for the University of New Mexico baseball team to show off its renovated stadium and revamped lineup after a long, pandemic-mandated break.
The Lobos made the most of it.
Harry Fullerton and Jack Silverman belted back-to-back home runs during a seven-run third inning, Kyler Castillo made a dazzling, home run-robbing catch in the ninth and UNM opened Mountain West play with an 11-7 victory over the Falcons in game one at windy Santa Ana Star Field.
The Lobos rode starting pitcher Justin Armbruester’s strong outing to a 5-2 victory in game two to complete the doubleheader sweep. UNM improved to 3-3, and players and coaches wore wide smiles as they left the field.
“It was kind of an overwhelming experience,” said freshman second baseman Chase Weissenborn, an Albuquerque Academy graduate. “We’ve all been working hard and following the protocols because we care about this program. As an Albuquerque native, it felt good to be out there representing with New Mexico across my chest and having the fans cheering. I’m glad we were able to get them two wins.”
Saturday’s first victory was coach Ray Birmingham’s 400th at UNM, and athletic director Eddie Nuñez presented him with an honorary plaque between games. It gave an announced, socially distanced crowd of 625 fans one more reason to cheer when simply attending a ballgame seemed reason enough.
Saturday’s twin bill marked the first collegiate game played in the state since the coronavirus pandemic began in March of 2020. The state’s public health order prohibited games in New Mexico until last week, when terms were relaxed to allow outdoor contests with fans at 25% of capacity.
The UNM-Air Force series, which had previously been moved to Amarillo, was quickly switched to Santa Ana Star Field and fans turned out Saturday to fill the open areas of its recently expanded stands.
Signs of the pandemic remained. Fans sported required face coverings and took advantage of numerous hand-sanitizer stations around the park.
Still, there was plenty of opening-day energy. Fans stood and clapped to UNM’s fight song after home runs by Fullerton and Silverman in the opener. They stood again and made almost as much noise when the public address announcer asked, “Who wants a free t-shirt?”
“It just feels good to play here again,” Lobos winning pitcher Isaiah Campa said between games. “I mean really good.”
Birmingham, who has spearheaded a series of renovations at UNM’s ballpark during his 14-year career, enjoyed the doubleheader as much as anyone. He was not expecting to receive an honorary plaque, however.
“I had no idea that was No. 400,” he said of the opening victory. “I got here at 7 o’clock this morning to fix a gate and I’ve been rolling ever since. I’m tired but that was a good day – a great day.”
UNM trailed 3-0 in the opener before its offense awoke. The Lobos rallied for two runs in the second and broke things open with seven more in the third. Fullerton’s three-run homer and Silverman’s solo shot both benefitted from a stiff wind blowing out toward right-center field.
Mack Chambers went 4-for-5 with three doubles for UNM, which outhit the Falcons 16-15 in the slugfest. Tommy Gillman had four hits for the Falcons (1-4).
Pitching dominated game two as Armbruester and relievers Terrell Hudson and Bobby Meza combined on a three-hitter with nine strikeouts. Castillo and Jared Martin had two hits and drove in two runs apiece for the Lobos.