The New Mexico baseball team does not need any extra motivation for its Mountain West Conference opener Friday night at 6 against UNLV.
Just in case, though, the Rebels are sending out arguably the top starting pitching prospect in the conference in right-hander Erick Fedde.
The junior currently ranks 26th on Baseball America's top 30 draft prospects list (subscriber-only link), just behind San Diego State's Michael Cederoth. The Aztecs, though, have moved Cederoth into the closer's role, leaving Fedde as the top starter in the eyes of pro scouts.
Fedde (2-1, 1.71 ERA) has fastball that sits at 93-95 mph, complementing that with a plus slider and and above-average changeup. ESPN ranked Fedde at No. 16 in its top draft prospects list (also subscriber-only) back in October. MLB.com pegged him at No. 22 in its current list.
All of that hype does fire up the Lobo hitters, junior catcher Alex Real said.
“Yeah, it does,” he said. “But it shouldn’t change the way we prepare. It shouldn’t change our routine. We’re going to go after him like we do any other pitcher. It’s definitely a challenge to step up to.”
Against the Lobos (8-4-1), Fedde has not had the best success in Albuquerque. He gave up five runs on nine hits and one walk in five innings on April 26, 2013, as UNLV lost 9-0 to UNM. Fedde was better in Las Vegas, giving up two runs in eight innings on March 15, 2013, though the Rebels lost that game 3-2 in 10 innings.
“That young man has not been able to beat us yet,” Lobos coach Ray Birmingham said. “So I’m sure he’s got everything ready. This is a big moment for him and we’ve got to fight like crazy to win it.”
As it was in that game in March last year, this will be the MWC opener for the Lobos. They are the last team to start conference play. UNLV (8-3) is already 3-0 in conference after sweeping Air Force last weekend.
“We’ve had high expectations going into conference (as the) defending champs,” Real said. “We don’t let it get to our head, it just makes us work harder, trying to defend that title.”
Countering Fedde on the mound Friday will be sophomore right-hander Drew Bridges (2-1, 2.30), who has been no slouch himself this season.
“You want to go out there and compete and try to beat a guy like him,” Bridges said. “At the same time, you should treat it like any other game and just go out there and do you job, not get too caught up in trying to beat a guy.”
UNM has been led at the plate by senior right fielder Chase Harris (.379, 2 HR, 18 RBI) and sophomore shortstop Jared Holley (.426, 8 RBI).
“I think we’re all feeling a lot more comfortable now,” said Real (.347, 11 RBI), who was named to the Johnny Bench Award watch list Thursday as one of the top catchers in the country. “Everyone has been hitting for the most part.”
Junior outfielder Edgar Montes (.375, 10 RBI) and sophomore third baseman Joey Armstrong (.391, 7 RBI) will lead UNLV's offensive attack this weekend. It will be one of the toughest lineups UNM has faced.
“It’s big, Friday night’s big,” Birmingham said. “We need all the Lobo people in the state (at Lobo Field) to help us beat the Rebels. It’s a big game.”
The Lobos have a five-game winning streak against the Rebels overall and have won nine in a row in Albuquerque. The series will continue Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m.