The 2013 season started off with all signs pointing to a rebuilding year for the New Mexico baseball team. It ended with both a co-regular season Mountain West championship and also a disappointing pair of loss in the conference tournament that nullified any NCAA Tournament aspirations.
Ask coach Ray Birmingham what he thinks of the season gone by and the answer may surprise a few people. Then again, anyone who knows the Lobos' coach should not be too out of character.
“You know what? It was a great year,” Birmingham said. “And the reason I say that is, is that it was a rebuilding year with so many young people and so many things happening.”
UNM finished 37-20-1 overall despite featuring a lineup that titled toward youth. For much of the year, the starting lineup consisted of three freshmen, two sophomores, two juniors (one a junior-college transfer) and two seniors.
“It was the year that I told the team all fall and early spring that everybody’s looking for you, baby,” Birmingham said. “You guys have been the (team) to beat in this league for a while. You’ve got a big target and they’re ready to get you. Everybody had veteran ballclubs. Most of the season we had seven or eight freshmen or sophomores on the field.”
The Lobos went two and out at the Mountain West tournament last weekend, with poor defense being the biggest culprit. With their RPI around 58 entering the tournament, they could not squeak into the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team.
Birmingham pointed out that his young squad was not a power-hitting group, and that as the season went on their opponents got better and better scouting reports. Outfielders starting playing more shallow, taking away balls that once fell for singles and doubles.
“Those things you can’t control, but you can control defense, you can play better defense,” Birmingham said. “We had two bad innings in two days and it cost us. The sad part was it erased 30 games of outstanding, championship play, just like it didn’t happen. And we didn’t get in the NCAAs because of it.”
Overall, though, UNM played above its own expectations. The Lobos weathered hamstring injuries to shortstop Jared Holley and left fielder Danny Collier late in the year. They were also without Friday night starter Drew Bridges for much of the season due to a sore shoulder.
The pitching staff, long a problem at UNM, was a strength this season. Bridges (4-1, 3.66 ERA) was effective when he was healthy, as were senior right-hander Josh Walker (7-5, 3.87) and junior lefty Colton Thomson (6-6, 3.68).
The bullpen was a major plus this year. Sophomore closer Victor Sanchez (4-1, 2.33, 10 saves) was dominant at times. The setup crew of lefty Carson Schneider (2-1, 3.81, 1 save) and right-handers Jake Cole (3-1, 3.67, 3 saves) and Taylor Duree (2-0, 3.55, 1 save) was solid throughout the season.
Offensively the Lobos did not hit like years past. First baseman Ryan Padilla (.252/.315/.370) struggled early and was eventually benched in favor of freshman Jack Zoellener (.301/.416/.421, 2 HR, 15 RBI).
Holley (.314/.379/.358, 19 RBI) was limited by his injury, as was Collier (.353/.419/.410, 20 RBI), who nonetheless managed to be named the MWC Freshman of the Year. Freshman third baseman Andre Vigil (.311/.345/.378, 30 RBI) hit well but struggled to adjust to a position he never played before.
Carrying the lineup for much of the year were senior right fielder Chase Harris (.377/.432/.559, 8 HR, 63 RBI), senior designated hitter/outfielder John Pustay (.324/.371/.436, 2 HR, 37 RBI), junior catcher Alex Real (.320/.391/.465, 25 doubles, 47 RBI) and sophomore second baseman Sam Haggerty (.340/.420/.418, 2 HR, 38 RBI). Only Haggerty is expected to return next season, however.
For an early look at the 2015 Lobos, check back Monday. The Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft will also be previewed next week for UNM and the rest of New Mexico.