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Lobos finish fall practice with high hopes for 2014

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The New Mexico baseball team wrapped up fall practice Thursday in fitting fashion, a 4-4 tie in the finale of the annual Cherry and Silver Series.

Played under the new lights at Lobo Field, the last intrasquad clash of the fall saw some good pitching, timely hitting early by the Silver team and late in the game by the Cherry team, as well as some shaky defense that was out of the ordinary for UNM this fall.

Overall, even with over a dozen newcomers and minus several stalwarts who have gone on to the professional ranks, it was a positive fall for a team in transition.

"We lost a lot of talent, but the pitching looks really good," coach Ray Birmingham said. "The pitching staff as a staff looks really good. Now somebody has to emerge as a Friday night guy and a Saturday night guy and a Sunday guy."

Birmingham mentioned returning pitchers Josh Walker (11-1, 3.66 ERA, 7 saves) and Drew Bridges (3-1, 4.46) as two candidates to lead the rotation this coming spring. Walker began the year as the Lobos' closer before making four late-season starts. Bridges started nine of the 11 games he appeared in as a freshman.

"There are several guys who have a really good shot at being the third guy," Birmingham said. "But the thing that we do have is we have an entire pitching staff. There's a lot of guys you wouldn't hesitate to run out there. Best overall pitching staff I've seen since I've been here."

The lineup behind the pitching staff will certainly have a different look with the departures of catcher Mitch Garver (.390, 6 HR, 68 RBI), first baseman D.J. Peterson (.408, 18 HR, 72 RBI), third baseman Alex Allbritton (.312, 2 HR, 39 RBI), left fielder Luke Campbell (.385, 7 HR, 49 RBI) and center fielder Josh Melendez (.329, 3 HR, 41 RBI).

Some players are even changing positions for 2014. Junior Alex Real (.317, 8 HR, 36 RBI) will move behind the plate full-time, though he is being pushed by talented freshman Lane Milligan.

Junior Ryan Padilla (.266, 3 HR, 18 RBI) is making the transition from left field to first base. Freshman Andre Vigil, a standout second baseman at Volcano Vista High School, is moving to third base after sophomore Jered Meek underwent knee surgery that will keep him out indefinitely.

"Padilla played pretty good except late in the game (Thursday)," Birmingham said. "He played pretty good most of the time. He made some great plays and looked like he was at home."

After backing up first base last year, senior John Pustay (.372, 13 RBI) is moving back to left field, where he played prior to suffering a dislocated ankle in 2012.

The only players returning at their old positions are sophomore second baseman Sam Haggerty (.280, HR, 32 RBI), sophomore shortstop Jared Holley (.293, 20 RBI) and senior right fielder Chase Harris (.321, 5 HR, 48 RBI, 19 stolen bases). Junior college transfer Aaron Siple is expected to take over in center field and add more speed atop the lineup.

"I think we'll end up swinging the bats as well as we have in the past, but there's a lot of young kids in the lineup," Birmingham said. "It's going to be on Padilla and Real and Harris and Pustay and Haggerty to carry the load offensively for a while. I think they're capable of doing it."

In the end Birmingham said it will come down to two aspects of the game besides hitting if the Lobos want to advance past the NCAA regional round.

"We're going to do it the way it has to be done to get to Omaha and that's pitch and play defense," Birmingham said.

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