Some aspects of preseason never change for coach Ray Birmingham’s University of New Mexico baseball team.
Preparing for its Feb. 13 opener at the Surprise Tournament in Arizona, UNM is focused on extending its five-year run of Mountain West titles (either regular-season, tournament or both) and making a run at the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
But this year there’s a twist.
UNM has consistently ranked among the nation’s top hitting teams during Birmingham’s tenure, and the eighth-year coach believes the Lobos will hit again in 2015. But offense is not expected to be this team’s strength.
“The pitching staff is the key,” Birmingham said, “and this staff can be really, really good.”
Most of the familiar names on New Mexico’s preseason roster are pitchers, which is a good news/bad news situation. The up side is the Lobos have a talented staff anchored by veterans. The flip side is UNM’s position players are an exceptionally young group.
Depending upon preseason position battles, the Lobos could have as few as three returning starters in the lineup when they take on Michigan State on Feb. 13. They’ll almost certainly have new starters at catcher, shortstop, third base and in two outfield positions.
“There’s definitely a different feel with this team and all the youth,” Birmingham said. “We have a lot of young talent, but the key word is young.”
Fortunately for Birmingham and pitching coach Dan Spencer, there will be experience on the mound.
Senior left-hander Colton Thomson and junior right-hander Drew Bridges figure to join junior lefty Toller Boardman in the starting rotation. Thomson and Bridges were weekend starters for the Lobos last season, while Boardman pitched previously at San Jacinto Junior College and at Texas before transferring to UNM.
On paper at least, the Lobo bullpen looks even more formidable. Closer Victor Sanchez returns after a standout sophomore season (4-1 with a 2.33 ERA and 10 saves). The right-hander has plenty of quality set-up help in senior right-hander Jake Cole, junior right-hander Taylor Duree and sophomore lefty Carson Schneider, all of whom excelled in key roles last season.
“Except for a couple extra-inning games, we didn’t lose when leading after seven innings last year,” Birmingham said. “Our bullpen was solid and it should be even better.”
Should fans expect a slew of low-scoring games at Lobo Field this season? Birmingham won’t go quite that far.
“We still have guys who can hit,” he said, “and they will. But pitching and defense get you to Omaha and that’s still the goal.”
Defensively, UNM figures to be solid on the infield. Junior Sam Haggerty returns at second base, and junior Jared Holley moves to third. The latter move is to open a spot at shortstop for Dalton Bowers, a Volcano Vista graduate who played at New Mexico Junior College last season.
Sophomore Danny Collier or senior Aaron Siple will likely start in center field, and sophomore Andre Vigil is moving from third base to one of the corner outfield spots, Birmingham said.
Catcher, first base and the third outfield position remain up for grabs.
“We’ve still got holes to fill,” Birmingham said, “and we could end up starting a couple of freshmen. But I like our potential and I feel really good about our pitching. That’s got to be where it starts for us this year.”