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Lobos, Bulldogs to play for 1st place in MWC baseball

UNM outfielder/pitcher Luis Gonzalez says of this weekend's series against Fresno State: "I feel like we're the two best teams in the Mountain West. ... There's a lot at stake, and I'm sure both teams are pretty fired-up." (Greg Sorber/Journal File)

UNM outfielder/pitcher Luis Gonzalez says of this weekend’s series against Fresno State: “I feel like we’re the two best teams in the Mountain West. … There’s a lot at stake, and I’m sure both teams are pretty fired-up.”
(Greg Sorber/Journal File)

They’re just three games in the middle of a long college baseball season but this weekend’s New Mexico-Fresno State showdown is not just another series.

The Lobos (20-9, 9-3) and Bulldogs (21-9, 9-3) come in tied for first place in the Mountain West standings and will play in their only head-to-head meeting today through Sunday at Santa Ana Star Field. Because of the MWC’s unbalanced schedule, UNM and Fresno State do not play a series in Fresno this season.

That means the team that prevails in this weekend series will not only take over sole possession of first place, it will also own the tiebreaker when seeding for the Mountain West Tournament is determined.

“It almost feels like all or nothing,” Lobo outfielder/pitcher Luis Gonzalez said. “I feel like we’re the two best teams in the Mountain West, and this is our only chance to play each other. There’s a lot at stake, and I’m sure both teams are pretty fired up. I know we are.”

The Lobos have to be especially happy to have the series in Albuquerque, which has not been a vacation spot for the Bulldogs over the years. Fresno State is 1-11 in the Duke City since joining the Mountain West, with the lone victory coming last season.

“(The Bulldogs) won’t come in here serving cookies and lemonade,” UNM coach Ray Birmingham said. “We’ve given them a tough time here, and I’m sure they’ll be pretty motivated. I think their team right now is as good as the one that won the national championship in 2008, too, so we really need to be at our best.”

New Mexico has been on an extended roll lately, having won 12 of its last 15 games. Fresno State has been equally hot, winning 10 of its last 12.

The teams have different strengths, as UNM leads the Mountain West in runs scored (221) and ranks second in batting average (.320), while Fresno State has allowed the fewest runs (120) and leads the MWC in earned-run average (2.97).

Still, both teams have shown impressive balance. New Mexico’s pitching, especially from its starters, has been consistently strong. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, are hitting much more effectively than they did a season ago.

“I like pitching against Fresno State because their lineup is a lot like ours,” said Lobo left-hander Carson Schneider. “They have a couple real big bats and pretty much everyone can swing it. It’s really important to stay focused and work ahead in counts.”

Schneider (5-1) is scheduled to start tonight against Bulldog lefty Ricky Tyler Thomas (4-2). Both Schneider and Gonzalez believe the series opener is particularly big.

“We really want to get that first win and put the pressure on them,” Gonzalez said. “It’s really important to set the tone, so we’re very focused on (today’s) game.”

Schneider figures to pay extra attention to Bulldog outfielder Brody Russell, who comes in hitting .396, with 28 RBIs – both team highs.

Chris DeVito leads the Lobos with a .416 batting average and paces the Mountain West with eight home runs and 41 RBIs. But DeVito has had more support as Lobos Gonzalez (.385 average) and Jack Zoellner (.377) rank sixth and seventh, respectively, in the MWC batting race. DeVito stands second behind Air Force’s Adam Groesbeck (.444).

“It’ll be a good matchup between our hitting and their pitching,” Birmingham said. “As usual, Fresno has a really good staff.”

Thomas (1.94) and Saturday starter Jimmy Lambert (1.61) sport two of the MWC’s top ERAs, and closer Tim Borst sports a 1.29 ERA, with six saves and 28 strikeouts, in 21 innings of work. Relief pitching may rate as Fresno State’s most notable advantage, as UNM relievers other than Alex Estrella (1.35 ERA) have been hot and cold.

Still, Birmingham said the Lobos feel comfortable in tightly contested games and won’t be bothered by late-game pressure this weekend.

“The team that wins this series has a leg up,” Birmingham said. “Our guys know that. They’re ready to go.”

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