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Stevens: Is This Birmingham’s Lobos’ Year?

Stevens: Is This Birmingham’s Lobos’ Year?

His Lobos of 2016 have the chance to produce the right combination at the plate and on the mound. Birmingham has a strong core of hitters back. Better yet, he returns nine of 11 pitchers from 2015.

Is This Finally the Year for Birmingham’s Lobos?

BY RICHARD STEVENS

“The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” That was the cry of Chicken Little, who really did believe the sky was falling. The cowardly chicken was wrong.

Lobo baseball coach Ray Birmingham has a yearly cry, too: “The road to Omaha. The road to Omaha.” The optimistic New Mexico coach believes his Lobos will make it to Omaha some day. This is the site of the College World Series. It’s where the big boys of college baseball go to play.

So far, Birmingham has been wrong about reaching that lofty destination, and you can’t help but wonder if Chicken Little’s prediction will come true first.

It’s not that Birmingham’s Lobos aren’t doing well. They have wedged their foot onto the NCAA path four times from 2010 to 2013, which is a tremendous achievement and a credit to UNM’s shoot-from-the-hip (Ah, shucks, I’m from Hobbs) coach. The Lobos’ last NCAA bid prior to Birmingham came in the 1960s.

Birmingham has done a lot of good at UNM since his hire in 2008 was pushed through by a lot of wise politicians and powerful money men, who put the lean on the UNM administration to pluck Birmingham away from New Mexico Junior College.

Birmingham had won 75 percent of his games at NMJC and won a national JC title. He also had the reputation of building his squads with New Mexico talent. A lot of Lobo fans like to see New Mexico talent on UNM rosters.

Birmingham has a nice squad in 2016, too. His Lobos clawed their way into the Top 25 earlier this season, and they have the potential to move in and out of those rankings all year.

Because Birmingham has pitching.

The backbone of Birmingham’s success at UNM has been his sticks. His Lobos hit baseballs the way Donald Trump smacks around political opponents. But in baseball, you often hit for show and pitch to advance in NCAA play. The Lobo hitting can be overrated, too. The Lobos have always hit the ball. From 1971, UNM had 40 seasons hitting .290 or higher. From 1991, UNM had 24 of 25 seasons above .300 at the plate.

But a lot of those Lobo teams had very little on the mound. In 1998, UNM hit .332 at the plate and yielded an ERA of 9.04. That’s awful. Birmingham’s last four seasons produced an ERA under 5.00. That’s pretty good.

His Lobos of 2016 have the chance to produce the right combination at the plate and on the mound. Birmingham has a strong core of hitters back. Better yet, he returns nine of 11 pitchers from 2015.

The Lobos under Birmingham are 3-8 in NCAA play going 1-2, 0-2, 1-2 and 1-2. The Lobos also have missed the NCAA tourney the past two seasons. UNM went 32-27 in 2015, finishing 17-13 in the Mountain West (fourth place) – with a young team.

The Lobos might have the balance to make a little more noise in the first round of NCAA play, but there are issues that could roadblock Birmingham’s stroll down the lane to Omaha: the home-field advantage.

Usually, of course not always, the home team advances. Birmingham’s Lobos have been sent on the road each time – partly because of their status in the NCAA pecking order but also because of their facility.

Lobo Field – now called Santa Ana Star Field – is a work in progress. It is a far cry from the days when UNM played in Isotopes Park, which had to be considered one of the premier college sites in America. Isotopes Park has stadium seats, modern concession stands, decent restrooms and is protected from the wind, rain and sun. It was fan friendly, and a lot of fans attended Lobo games for the same reason they attend Isotopes’ games – for the venue. Now, you go to Lobo games only for the Lobos. On a bad weather day, that might not be enough.

The Santa Ana Star Field is something you might expect to find in . . . well, let’s say it’s not something you would expect to find as an NCAA site.

So, are Birmingham’s Lobos doomed and destined to die on the NCAA road? Maybe not this year! The Lobos have hitting. The Lobos have pitching. The Lobos have Birmingham.

Maybe the sky will fall on somebody else.

Richard Stevens is a former sports writer for The Albuquerque Tribune. More recently, he was an insider at the Lobo athletic department. Reach him at rstev50@gmail.com.

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Dennis Domrzalski is managing editor of ABQ Free Press. Reach him at dennis@freeabq.com.