ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Lobos open season No. 21, but have higher aspirations
Lobo Field remains a work in progress but its tenants are ready for a run at the top.
That was the universal message Thursday as the University of New Mexico baseball team held its annual media day. The Lobos open the 2013 season next weekend, hosting Oklahoma State in a three-game series at Isotopes Park.
UNM is ranked 21st according to Baseball America’s preseason poll, a nice feather in the cap for coach Ray Birmingham’s program. The defending Mountain West Conference champs have higher aspirations, however.
Oklahoma State at New Mexico, 5 p.m., Isotopes Park; 101.7 FM
“It’s always good to see that stuff in the paper,” junior D.J. Peterson said of the ranking, “but we think it should be a little higher than 21.”
How high is Peterson thinking?
“I think we should be top 10,” he said without so much as a flinch.
If it sounds like Peterson might have chugged a few gallons of Birmingham’s Omaha Kool-Aid, he’s not the only one. The sixth-year Lobo coach has never been shy about challenging traditional baseball powers or proclaiming his quest of leading UNM to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
With arguably the best everyday lineup he’s had at UNM, Birmingham’s sales pitch is bolder than ever.
“We feel we’re as good as anybody in the country,” he said. “A national ranking helps because it shows people are starting to recognize us as a top program. It’s up to us to go live up to that, and I believe we can.”
The Lobos certainly have some impressive pieces in place. Third baseman Peterson, catcher Mitchell Garver and outfielder Ryan Padilla have drawn preseason All-America honors, and UNM has proven returning starters in shortstop Alex Allbritton and outfielders Josh Melendez and Luke Campbell.
Alex Real, who played outfield and designated hitter last season, will take over at first base. That leaves only second base to be filled by a newcomer, and freshman Sam Haggerty is the front-runner for the job.
“We’ve got as good of talent as we’ve ever had,” Allbritton said. “It’s a tight group, too. I’m excited.”
Preseason bravado aside, the biggest question mark for UNM baseball in 2013 is much the same as in other seasons: Can the Lobos pitch?
Austin House and Gera Sanchez, two of the team’s top starters from 2012, are gone. House was drafted and signed with the Oakland Athletics organization after his junior season, and Sanchez graduated. That leaves junior Josh Walker as the Lobos’ lone returning weekend starter.
Closer Hobie McClain returns to anchor what Birmingham called an “unbelievable” bullpen. Still, he acknowledged that starting pitching will ultimately determine how far UNM can go in 2013.
“We’ve got guys who can get the job done,” Birmingham said. “What we lack right now is that proven veteran who can match up with top teams on Friday nights. That’s a hole we still have to fill.”
Birmingham mentioned senior Sam Wolff and junior college transfers A.J. Carman and Anthony Consiglio as candidates for the weekend rotation but said he hasn’t finalized those assignments.
Maybe it’s just as well that Birmingham’s squad still has a few preseason question marks.
“If the stinkin’ Oakland A’s wouldn’t have taken Austin House, I’d probably be talking even more smack,” he joked.
BACK AT ISOTOPES: With construction still progressing at Lobo Field, UNM will again play most of this season’s home games at Isotopes Park. Lights have not yet been installed to allow night games at Lobo Field, nor has construction around the field progressed far enough to allow UNM to obtain a permit to hold games there.
The Lobos are practicing at Lobo Field, but their only home games at the facility this season will come in a three-game series May 3-5 against Air Force.
“Things are coming together,” Birmingham said. “You’d always like them to come together faster, but we’re miles ahead of last year and there’s more on the way.”
New turf has been installed at Isotopes Park since last season and the Lobos will use the facility for games only.
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal