It always comes down to the pitching.
At least that is the conventional wisdom in baseball at all levels. It is especially important for teams that play at high-altitude ballparks, where breaking pitches do not break and flyballs turn into long home runs.
The New Mexico Lobos enter the 2014 season as favorites to win another Mountain West Conference title, but it will come down to how a sizable crop of new pitchers step up alongside a small but talented group of returnees.
Senior right-hander Josh Walker, who became the first Lobo pitcher to ever earn preseason All-American honors, said he loves the potential of the UNM staff.
“We have a lot of young, vibrant guys, new transfers, some returners and we’re all coming in here just wanting to fill up the zone with strikes,” Walker said. “With the help of (pitching) coach Dan Spencer, his guidance has been vital to our pitching staff, to where we’ve come since he’s come here.
“I can’t thank the guy enough for what he’s done with me. It’s all about structure and discipline and hard work. The principles that he’s brought to the table have really rubbed off in a great way on this program.”
Walker was named to the third team by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association after a season where he served first as the Lobos' closer and then later became a key weekend starter. The Rio Rancho native went 11-1 with a 3.66 ERA and seven saves in 29 games (four starts).
“Josh is that New Mexico kid that I’m proud of,” coach Ray Birmingham said. “He’s the first Lobo in Lobo history to be a preseason All-American. We’ve got a wall full of hitters. I want a wall full of pitchers; so does Spence. If we have a wall full of pitchers on the wall of honor we’ll go to Omaha. Guys like Josh Walker are the kind of guys you have to have to go to Omaha.”
Walker will be a starter at the outset of this season. He is scheduled to pitch Sunday's series finale against the San Diego Toreros in California.
“It’s been a bit inconsistent the role I’ve had on the team,” Walker said. “I’ve always been the guy to preach and live by the mentality of whatever the team needs and whatever my coach needs from me to the best fit for the team is what it is.
“Altering different roles, it’s not a big deal.”
As last year showed, the season-opening weekend rotation rarely lasts throughout the campaign. Depth is crucial in terms of having lots of pitchers who can start and relieve, adapting to different roles as needed.
For now, sophomore right-hander Drew Bridges (3-1, 4.66 ERA) and junior left-hander Colton Thomson, a transfer from Scottsdale Community College, will pitch Friday and Saturday, respectively.
Bridges came to UNM last year as a shortstop, but Birmingham felt he could be a solid pitcher. He was for a stretch before coming down with a dead arm late in the season.
“It feels better, it feels really good compared to last year where it kind of died down at the end,” Bridges said. “Being a shortstop most of my life, coming here and just doing pitching, it seems easy, but it wore my body down and my arm. I had a different approach to this spring, so when it comes time to start I know it’s time to go.”
Other returning pitchers include senior left-hander Kevin Baumgartner (2-5, 8.35), senior right-handers A.J. Carman (1-1, 6.05) and Jonathan Cuellar (2-1, 5.87, 1 save), and sophomore right-handers Taylor Duree (4.15 ERA in 16 games) and Victor Sanchez (1-0, 6.75).
Another returning player who will convert from infielder to right-hander is sophomore Matt Villalobos.
Three other junior college transfers could also see some starts this season in sophomore right-hander Mike Gould and junior right-handers Jake Cole and Tyler Gibson.
Throw in four freshmen — lefty Carson Schneider and right-handers Jacob Atchley, Conner Rusch and Preston Ryan — and the Lobos seem to have plenty of depth. All that remains now is the hardest part, proving themselves against a tough schedule.
After opening with San Diego over the weekend, UNM will visit perennial powerhouse Arizona State on Tuesday. That will be followed by the home opener against Northern Illinois in the Lobo Invite on Feb. 21 at 4 p.m.