The University of New Mexico baseball team’s roller-coaster 2022 season finally skidded to a halt Saturday afternoon.
Visiting Air Force effectively applied the brakes, clinching the final spot in the upcoming Mountain West tournament with a 10-0 victory at Santa Ana Star Field. Right-hander Dylan Rogers tossed eight shutout innings to throw a damper on UNM’s Senior Day festivities.
The defeat came just hours after the Lobos staged a dramatic comeback, rallying for seven ninth-inning runs to steal a 13-12 win that temporarily kept Air Force out of the four-team conference tournament field. Such were the highs and lows of coach Tod Brown’s first season, as pitching-challenged UNM finished 21-33 overall, 10-20 and tied for last place in the seven-team Mountain West – 11 games behind regular season champion UNLV.
“The whole game’s built around pitching,” Brown said. “When you’re inconsistent in the pitching staff, you’re going to be inconsistent as a whole.”
UNM met that description, allowing opponents to score double-digit runs 26 times and to exceed 20 runs on five occasions. The Lobos finished with a 9.06 earned-run average as a team. That number was 8.98 entering the weekend, already the seventh worst in the country.
Nevertheless, the Lobos had their moments, coming from behind for wins over nationally ranked Arizona and Texas Tech, sweeping four games from New Mexico State and pulling off Friday’s stunning rally.
“It has been pretty crazy,” said first baseman Kyle Landers, one of six seniors honored prior to Saturday’s game. “I’ve been part of some really big wins and some tough losses here, but I feel like it teaches life lessons. We’ve overcome some things, and I think the program’s moving in the right direction.”
Landers could be the poster boy for ups and downs during his three seasons at UNM. He was leading the MWC in hitting – and the Lobos were 14-4 – when COVID-19 shut down the 2020 season. New Mexico then struggled through a 16-25 campaign in 2021 that concluded with veteran caoch Ray Birmingham’s retirement.
Landers hit .296 as a super senior this season, sharing the team lead with 18 doubles. He was one of four seniors in Saturday’s starting lineup along with second baseman Kamron Willman, catcher Johnnie Podsednik and DH Lance Russell. Catcher Cody Holtz and pitcher Miguel Reyes Jr. filled out the Senior Day card.
Brown said he has a few positions to restock for next season, with pitching the top priority. Still, with UNM out of conference contention relatively early, Brown and his staff took the opportunity to begin developing young pitchers. Two freshmen (Justin Still and Benjamin Baker-Livingston) and sophomore Jacob Strmiska pitched Saturday’s finale for UNM and each looked good at times.
“We need to add pitching, no question,” Brown said, “but we’ve got a good group of youngsters we can build around.”
UNM also has some anchors eligible to return, including outfielders Lenny Junior Ashby and Braydon Runion, who combined for 30 home runs and 97 RBIs. Ashby’s 17 home runs led the Mountain West, and his grand slam sparked Friday night’s ninth-inning rally.
“This team was resilient, and that goes back to having leaders,” Brown said. “We got our butts kicked a number of times, but the guys always found a way to bounce back. For a young team with only six seniors, that’s important.”
(Click here for final Mountain West Conference regular standings.)
UTAH VALLEY 10, NEW MEXICO STATE 8: In Orem, Utah, the host Wolverines salvaged the finale of the three-game set that also wraps the regular season. The Aggies (20-32, 10-20) had beaten UVU (19-37, 10-20) Thursday and Friday to win the series and the fourth (and last) spot from the Western Division in the upcoming Western Athletic Conference baseball tournament beginning Wednesday in Mesa, Arizona.