ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The show was over when the guests of honor arrived.
Monday morning’s NCAA baseball selection show viewing party started with a strange vibe for the University of New Mexico baseball team and its fans. The Lobos left their Oakland, Calif., hotel at 4:30 a.m. Pacific time and flew to Albuquerque bright and early but couldn’t make it to the gathering at Doc & Eddy’s Sports Bar in time for the 10 a.m. broadcast.
It was still a party atmosphere when the team bus pulled up 40 minutes later.
By then fans, coaches and players alike knew UNM had received a No. 3 seed in the Fullerton Regional and would face No. 2 Arizona State in Friday’s first round. Fans stood and clapped to the Lobo fight song as the team filed into the party.
NCAA Regional at Cal State Fullerton: UNM vs. Arizona State, 5 p.m., 101.7 FM, ESPN3
“That was really nice,” catcher Mitch Garver said of the reception. “It’s been an exhausting travel schedule the last couple weeks, and it’s great to see the support for Lobo baseball. We’re ready to get back on the horse and go to regionals.”
The Lobos (38-20) had been on the road for 12 days, playing a regular-season-ending series at San Diego State and competing in the Mountain West Conference tournament in Fresno, Calif. It started with a sweep of the Aztecs and tournament wins but ended with consecutive losses to SDSU, which earned the Mountain West’s automatic NCAA bid.
The defeats may have cost New Mexico a seeding position at regionals and dropped it from 13th to 17th in this week’s Baseball America poll. But Lobo players and coaches had moved on by Monday.
“We felt like we were going to win the (Mountain West) tournament without much problem,” first baseman D.J. Peterson said. “San Diego State just played really well and we kind of learned a lesson: Don’t count your apples until they’re picked.”
Coach Ray Birmingham agreed.
“Losing the tournament championship hurt,” he said. “We were mad for a little while, felt like we got punched in the face. But we get a chance to punch back this week and we plan to take it.”
The trip to Fullerton will mark a fourth consecutive regional appearance for UNM, a program that had previously played in just one – in 1962.
It’s familiar territory this year. The Lobos played in a regional at Fullerton in 2010 and they faced Arizona State in a regional the following year in Tempe. UNM lost that game 4-2 on a walkoff, three-run homer in the ninth.
“We’ve faced ASU seven times since I’ve been here,” said Peterson, who hails from Gilbert, Ariz. “It’s exciting to do it again and I feel like it’s a really good matchup.”
The Lobos and Sun Devils (35-20-1) squared off in a single game earlier this season. ASU won 4-3 in 11 innings in Tempe.
“It’s hard to tell too much from a midweek game like that,” said third baseman Alex Allbritton, another Arizona native. “But (the Sun Devils) are a team we’ve seen so many times over the years. I feel like we have a good chance of beating them.”
“We’re as good as Arizona State,” he said. “Their pitching staff is probably a little deeper, but our No. 1 starter vs. their No. 1 is a good matchup.”
The Lobos will undoubtedly be tested in the double-elimination regional, which includes Cal State Fullerton (48-8) and Columbia (27-19) on the other side of the bracket. The host Titans go in as the No. 5 national seed.
“That’s going to be fun,” Peterson said. “Fullerton is who we want to play, one of the top 16 teams in the nation. If you want to get to Super Regionals and eventually to Omaha, you have to be able to beat teams of that caliber.”
UNM will bring one of the nation’s top offenses into regional play, and Birmingham was not concerned about being slowed in the weekend’s two losses to San Diego State – 8-7 and 9-4.
“We won’t face any better arms in the NCAAs than we did against San Diego State,” Birmingham said, “and it wasn’t that they shut us down. They’d just faced us so many times, they knew how to play us. We lined out or hit balls right at people so many times.”
Garver agreed, adding that the Lobos will be on time and ready for their next big show.
“San Diego State played unbelievable baseball for two days,” he said, “and we left an obscene number of runners on base. But we’re still confident we can score on anyone. We like our chances this week.”