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Lobo baseball begins critical stretch

The next 10 days loom particularly large for the University of New Mexico baseball team, and the Lobos know it.

Starting with today’s series opener against visiting UNLV, UNM will play eight games in a 10-day span, and the results will could have a big impact on its postseason plans. The Lobos host the Rebels (14-25, 7-11 Mountain West) for three games, host No. 4 Texas Tech (31-8) for two midweek contests, then visit San Diego State (27-11, 13-5) for a three-game set.

New Mexico (20-16-1, 11-2-1) has an opportunity take control of the Mountain West race and greatly improve its overall résumé. That opportunity is not lost on coach Ray Birmingham or his players.

“We want to win our conference,” Birmingham said, “and we’re in good shape to do it. The next five games at home should really help us, but it’s time to step it up and hit on all cylinders. We really haven’t done that yet.”

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Senior first baseman Jack Zoellner agreed, using Tuesday’s doubleheader at Kansas State as a clear example. UNM dropped both contests by 12-10 and 3-2 margins.

“It was frustrating because we played pretty well and couldn’t pull out either game,” Zoellner said. “We hit the ball great in the first game and gave up 12 runs, then we pitched well in game two and couldn’t score. It’s been like that a lot this season. One aspect’s good and one’s bad.”

To this point, UNM has been more consistent in conference play. In conference games, the Lobos lead the MWC in hitting (.376 average), slugging percentage (.578) and runs (171). They rank second in team pitching with a 4.06 earned-run average.

But UNM went 0-1-1 in its most recent Mountain West series at San Jose State and can ill afford another poor series, especially at home.

“No, we have to look at every team like it’s the best in the nation,” Zoellner said. “We can’t look past UNLV. We know they’re capable of beating us.”

Like the Lobos, the Rebels badly need a hot streak to lift their postseason hopes. The Mountain West has revised its postseason tournament format, and only the top four finishers will be included. UNLV comes into the weekend in fifth place, but is coming off a non-conference 13-12 win over Arizona State.

“UNLV can hit,” Birmingham said. “They’re dangerous.”

The Lobos, meanwhile, are trying to capitalize on another MWC tournament change. The league’s regular-season champion will host its postseason tournament instead of it going to a predetermined site.

“We do have a lot to play for,” Zoellner said, “and we usually start putting everything together late in the season. We need to start now.”

NOTES: Pitchers Tyler Stevens and Johnathon Tripp will start the first two games against UNLV, but Sunday’s starter remains to be determined. Left-handers Luis Gonzalez and Carson Schneider are the most likely candidates. Gonzalez has not pitched for two weeks because of an ankle sprain.

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