Long before they even knew who they were playing, the New Mexico baseball players and coaches were all in agreement that this year's edition of the Mountain West Conference Tournament was completely wide open. UNM, seeded second, is just one of six teams that could snag the automatic bid to an NCAA regional.
"It very easily could be somebody that you don't expect (to win) if you're not careful," Lobos coach Ray Birmingham said. "It's going to be really hard."
UNM (37-18-1, 20-10) will face No. 3 San Diego State (38-18, 17-13) on Thursday at 4 p.m. in Las Vegas to open the tournament. The Aztecs routed No. 7 San Jose State 15-1 on Wednesday. That came after the Spartans eliminated No. 6 Air Force 11-3.
UNM took two of three games from SDSU in Albuquerque from May 2 to 4. The teams did not play in San Diego this season.
As day one of the tournament showed, the hitters have an advantage in hot, windy Las Vegas. The Lobo hitters and pitchers, however, said it will not affect their approach.
"I plan on going off in this tournament," said senior right fielder Chase Harris. "I want to go out with another championship."
Senior right-hander Josh Walker (7-4, 3.86 ERA) will start against the Aztecs, giving him another shot at tying the UNM career wins record of 27 set by Rob Hoover in 1979. Walker said he is not worried about the hitter-friendly conditions in Las Vegas.
"I love playing at UNLV," Walker said. "They've got a great mound with some good tilt on it. A really good crowd, which makes for some high intensity. It's going to be a really good tournament, a lot more even than years' past."
Walker (7-4, 3.86 ERA) will start the first game against the Aztecs. UNM will not switch things up after that, no matter the matchup, as lefty Colton Thomson (6-6, 3.73) and right-hander Drew Bridges (4-1, 3.66) will follow. If the Lobos need another starter, Jonathan Cuellar (3-3, 4.57) will likely get the call.
"The key to all of it is pitching," Birmingham said. "And so that's what's got to happen, we've got to pitch and play defense."
The goal for UNM is to get through six innings with a lead. The Lobos have not given up a lead after six innings all season, largely thanks to a dominant bullpen led by Victor Sanchez (4-0, 1.47, 10 saves), Taylor Duree (2-0, 3.09, 1 save), Jake Cole (3-1, 3.86, 3 saves) and lefty Carson Schneider (2-1, 3.86, 1 save).
"The great thing is we're 31-0 with a lead after six innings," Birmingham said. "How about that? Tip your hat to the bullpen."
As for the bats, Harris (.376, 7 HR, 60 RBI, 13 stolen bases) has led the way all season. Second baseman Sam Haggerty (.336, 2 HR, 37 RBI, 13 stolen bases), catcher Alex Real (.329, 25 doubles, 2 HR, 47 RBI) and designated hitter/outfielder John Pustay (.321, 2 HR, 36 RBI) have all been major contributors.
"Odds are it will probably be a different guy (stepping up) every game," Harris said. "It's just all about winning a championship."
Sophomore right-hander Mark Seyler (8-5, 3.94) will start for the Aztecs. He gave up six runs on seven hits and two walks in a 13-5 loss to the Lobos back on May 4.
With a victory, UNM will play a winner's bracket game Friday at 8 p.m. Should they lose, the Lobos would have to play at either noon or 4 p.m.
The Mountain West announced its conference awards Wednesday. UNM left fielder Danny Collier was named the Freshman of the Year. Real, Haggerty and Harris were all named to the All-MWC first team. Walker earned a spot on the second team. ... Player of the Year honors went to Fresno State outfielder Jordan Luplow. UNLV right-hander Erick Fedde, who succumbed to Tommy John surgery at the end of the season, was named Pitcher of the Year, while the Rebels' Tim Chambers earned Coach of the Year.