D.J. Peterson knows 2012 will be a tough act to follow.
Extremely tough, in fact.
As a sophomore third baseman at the University of New Mexico, Peterson set the college baseball world ablaze in 2012. His ridiculous hitting numbers (.419 batting average, 17 home runs, 78 RBIs) brought home a Mountain West Conference triple crown, multiple All-American awards and a spot on USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team.
The latter honor allowed Peterson to expand his horizons with Team USA, competing in Cuba and the Netherlands during the summer. Peterson also played summer ball in the prestigious Cape Cod League before returning to UNM for fall baseball drills and his junior year of college.
“It was pretty unreal,” Peterson said of his 2012 baseball tour. “I saw some amazing places and played with some unbelievable players. It really was once in a lifetime.”
Now the unavoidable question: What can Peterson do for an encore?
The sweet-swinging right-hander will almost certainly play his final season as a Lobo in 2013. He’ll become draft-eligible, his name sits near the top of numerous prospect lists, and Peterson will play in front of pro scouts on a nightly basis.
“Barring anything unforeseen, D.J. will be a first-round draft pick,” UNM coach Ray Birmingham said.
Peterson concedes that hearing his name called early in the June draft would make 2013 a year to remember. That said, he doesn’t plan to take it easy in the interim.
The Lobos, ranked 21st by Baseball America, open the season Friday with Peterson and MWC Co-Player of the Year Mitchell Garver anchoring an everyday lineup expected to be one of the nation’s most formidable.
As a result, Peterson said he’s not worried about bettering last season’s statistics — most of them anyway. Instead he wants to visit one more notable baseball destination before his college career is done.
“I do want to hit .450,” he said with a smile, “but my big thing is helping the team. With the bats and arms we have, I don’t see us anywhere but Omaha (site of the College World Series). There’s really no other goal.”
Choosing his colors
Helping New Mexico reach its first College World Series seems a worthy objective for Peterson. He’s already helped put UNM baseball on the map.
A Gilbert, Ariz. native, Douglas Junior Peterson ranks as one Birmingham’s top recruiting scores. He was courted by the likes of Texas, UCLA, Utah and home-state powers Arizona and Arizona State and had numerous scholarship offers.
“It was actually my grandpa who first talked to (Birmingham),” Peterson said. “He felt like Coach B was a genuine guy, and he’s known for teaching hitting. Those were big keys for me.”
Birmingham knew what he had in the Louisville Slugger High School All-American.
“I counted my lucky stars when D.J. committed,” he said.
Peterson immediately earned a spot in UNM’s starting lineup in 2011 and put together an impressive year. He led the Lobos in most offensive categories, set an NCAA record for doubles (32) by a freshman and was named a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American.
Better yet, Peterson was named MVP of the Mountain West Conference tournament after helping the sixth-seeded Lobos complete a shocking championship run that sent them to NCAA Regionals.
One for the books
Momentum from Peterson’s freshman campaign did not immediately carry over to 2012. Like most of his teammates, Peterson struggled early as UNM stumbled to a 2-9 start.
But any thoughts of a sophomore slump soon evaporated. Peterson had hits in 53 of UNM’s 61 games, put together a 22-game streak and basically terrorized opposing pitchers on his way to winning the MWC Triple Crown.
Peterson’s 104 hits ranked as the third best single-season total in Lobo history. His 182 total bases ranked fourth.
As for those first few weeks …
“I probably tried to do too much,” Peterson said. “Once I realized that (Garver) and the other guys in our lineup were there to pick me up, I started to relax. That’s really all it took to get me going.”
Once Peterson and the Lobos got going, they rolled for quite a while. Birmingham’s team won Mountain West regular-season and tournament titles, advanced to a third straight NCAA Regional and defeated San Diego before losses to host UCLA and Creighton ended the season.
After starting 2-9, the Lobos finished 37-24.
Peterson and Garver were named MWC Co-Players of the Year and a parade of national honors soon followed. Three organizations named Peterson to first-team All-American squads and he was selected to play on the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team.
Horns and coffee
Playing for Team USA provided Peterson with new perspective. He trained with some of the nation’s best players and coaches, then competed against elite-level players from other countries.
The surroundings were like nothing Peterson had experienced.
“Cuba was pretty crazy,” he said. “The fans were blowing horns like they do at soccer games, and they were playing Latino music during the game. It was a whole different vibe. Hearing those horns blaring during your at-bat was definitely different.”
Team USA went 4-3 against the Cuban National Team, then it was on to the Netherlands.
“That was like a constant party with everyone amped-up on coffee,” Peterson said. “The coffee there was so extra strong, one cup gave me the jitters. You do not want to drink that before a game.”
After earning a bronze medal at the international tournament, Peterson felt good about his summer. He led Team USA in extra-base hits and RBIs.
“Having USA on your back and being able to represent New Mexico and the university was a great experience,” Peterson said. “I also got to bat against some of the best arms out there. I feel like I’m ready for anything now.”
Eye on the ball
Birmingham smiled when asked about the increased attention his Lobos figure to receive this season. With a preseason national ranking and two heavily scouted players in Peterson and Garver, UNM baseball will not slip under many radar screens.
The Lobo coach admits to some concerns that his star players will try too hard to shine in the national spotlight.
“That’s always something you worry about,” Birmingham said, “but D.J. and Mitch know we have nine guys who can produce. I think they’re mature enough to play through the distractions.”
Peterson says the situation is similar to high school ,when college coaches were constantly in the stands at his games.
“You know they’re up there,” Peterson said, “but they’re just like more fans. That’s the way I look at it.”
If Peterson maintains his usual focus and comes anywhere near his 2012 production, he could well become the third first-round draft pick UNM has produced. Jim Kremmel (1971) and Kevin Andersh (1984) are the others.
“When it comes to hitting, D.J.’s in the elite,” Birmingham said. “He hits for average, he’s one of the best power hitters I’ve had, and it’s all effortless. If he hit with the bats we used a few years ago, his numbers would be just stupid.”
Opposing coaches and pitchers are aware of Peterson’s prowess, which may limit the number of strikes thrown his way in 2013. That’s why Peterson is not focused on topping his 2012 numbers.
“If people want to pitch around me, I’ll take my walks and let other guys drive me in,” Peterson said. “To me, this season is all about winning games and taking Lobo baseball to another level. If that happens, it’s a great year. The rest will take care of itself.”
n 2013 Preseason 1st Team All-American (Collegiate Baseball, NCBWA, Perfect Game)n Preseason 2nd Team All-American (Baseball America)n 2012 USA Baseball Collegiate National Teamn 1st Team All-American (Perfect Game, Louisville Slugger, NCBWA)n Mountain West Co-Player of the Yearn Mountain West Triple Crownn Golden Spikes Award Semifinalistn Dick Howser Trophy Semifinalistn 2011 Freshman All-American (NCBWA, Louisville Slugger)1st Round: Jim Kremmel (1971), Kevin Andersh (1984)2nd Round: Jim Fregosi (1985)3rd Round: Joe Daniels (1970)5th Round: Rod Nichols (1985)6th Round: Cole White (2009)7th Round: Keith Hagman (1980), Aaron Sisk (2000)8th Round: Jack Hollis (1977), Duffy Ryan (1980), Bobby LaFromboise (2008)
UNM’s top draft picks
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal