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Lobo seniors hope to go out with conference title

Senior Josh Walker will start the opener of the Lobos' final home series of the season.
Courtesy of UNM, used with permission

The New Mexico baseball team heads into the final weekend of the regular season exactly where the Lobos want to be. UNM (35-17-1, 18-9) sits in first place in the Mountain West ahead of UNLV (30-21, 17-10) by one game with three to play.

That scenario suits the Lobos' six seniors just fine. Outfielders Chase Harris and John Pustay, plus pitchers Kevin Baumgartner, A.J. Carman, Jonathan Cuellar and Josh Walker will all suit up at Lobo Field for the last time starting Thursday at 7 p.m. against Air Force.

“Well, for one, it’s just flown by,” Harris said. “We control our own destiny. We don’t gotta sit there and (worry about) whatever happens with UNLV. We’ve just got to take of these three games like we think we will and win the Mountain West.”

Walker (7-4, 4.16 ERA) will start against the Falcons on Thursday. He will be attempting to tie the all-time UNM wins record (27) set by Rob Hoover in 1979.

“If you would’ve asked me that I’d have an opportunity to hold the wins record when I first got here my sophomore year, I wouldn’t have guessed it,” Walker said. “I’m thankful for it and for everyone that has supported me. It’s a great honor.”

Harris (.369, 7 HR, 59 RBI, 13 stolen bases) has been the Lobos' best hitter this season. Pustay (.317, 2 HR, 33 RBI) is the only other senior regular, alternating between left field and designated hitter.

“They’ve had great careers here,” coach Ray Birmingham said. “But, at UNM baseball, a great career can only have the great next to it with (MWC) championships and (NCAA) regionals next to it. That’s where we’re at now. So they know that. They want to win a championship and they want to go to regionals. They want to represent the great state of New Mexico on a national platform.”

Cuellar (3-3, 4.57) filled in for the rotation when sophomore Drew Bridges was hurt, but the right-hander now finds himself back in the bullpen. Baumgartner (2-1, 6.04) and Carman (3-0, 5.65) have also spent the bulk of the year in relief, with Carman making just four starts in midweek games.

The Air Force team they will face this weekend has been playing spoiler of late. The Falcons (19-31, 9-18) have gone 7-2 in their last nine home games in conference play against UNLV, Nevada and San Jose State.

On the road, however, Air Force is just 0-12 against MWC foes. That does not mean the Lobos will take the Falcons lightly.

“They’re going to come play us tough,” Harris said. “They always play us tough. They always try to play us tough. We’ve been fortunate enough to take care of them every time they come here.”

UNM and Air Force will continue their series Friday at 7 p.m. and Saturday at 1 p.m. The Mountain West tournament will then be held next week in Las Vegas.

Notes

Junior catcher Alex Real was named a semifinalist for the Johnny Bench Award on Thursday morning, given to the top backstop in college baseball. Former Lobo Mitchell Garver was a finalist for the award last season. ... Sophomore shortstop Jared Holley and freshman outfielder Danny Collier have both been dealing with hamstring injuries. Birmingham said they are questionable for this series. ... Closer Victor Sanchez was named to the watch list for the Gregg Olson Award, given to the breakout player in college baseball. He is also on the watch list for the Stopper of the Year Award, given to the best relief pitcher.