First pitch is only a couple days away

New Mexico head coach Ray Birmingham gives tips to players during batting practice on Media Day. Isabel Gonzalez/The Lobo Lair

Isabel Gonzalez

While winter hasn’t left yet, baseball is ready to come back. The University of New Mexico baseball team is set to begin its 2019 season on Feb. 15 as the Lobos travel to Arizona for a tournament that kicks off with the Oregon State Beavers, the 2018 National Champions.

2018 season
Since Ray Birmingham became the head coach at UNM 12 years ago, he has only had two losing seasons. The first one was in 2011 when the Lobos finished with an overall record of 20-41. Everyone went to the Mountain West Tournament in 2011 and the Lobos ended up being the champions.

The last time was last year as the team finished 20-33-1 overall. New Mexico was selected as the preseason conference favorite in 2018, but this became the first season that Birmingham didn’t make the trip to the conference tournament with the Lobos.

Birmingham described last year’s result as “embarrassing.” However, senior infielder/right-handed pitcher Hayden Schilling doesn’t want to forget it ever happened. Instead, he said he wants to use the experience as motivation to do better in 2019.

“I don’t think we need to forget about that,” Schilling said. “We kind of need to hold on to that. We need to have that to fuel the fire and come back out and do what we know we can do.”

Issues outside the field
Other than injuries and a young team, the coaching staff was dealing with the noise of budget cuts in the athletic department and the baseball team being in consideration for being eliminated. Birmingham’s contract had also not been renewed. But some peace of mind was achieved during the offseason. Baseball is no longer in danger of being cut, and the school gave the coach a three-year extension in December.

While there had been no guarantees that Birmingham would be back this season, senior outfielder Jared Mang said he couldn’t even imagine what it would’ve been like to have his head coach replaced.

“Honestly, no. I’m happy that we don’t,” he answer when asked if he had thought about what it would be like to return this season to a new coach. “It’s good to have the familiar face back there. I didn’t even think about it because I expected him to be back.” 

New year, new team
How does one follow a bad season? Birmingham dives straight into business. The Lobos are opening the season with a game against the Oregon State Beavers, the 2018 National Champions. This game is part of the College Baseball Classic in Surprise, Ariz.

The Lobos will face Oregon State on Friday and again on Monday. On Saturday and Sunday New Mexico will take on Minnesota and Gonzaga, two teams that participated in the 2018 NCAA Tournament.

When asked about the tough schedule, Birmingham laughed and said it was made right after the 2016 season (when the Lobos were coming off a Mountain West championship) and that maybe this is not how they would’ve wanted it after the 2018 season. However, those who know him know that he was only joking.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m glad we are playing,” he said, but still remained realistic. “Our record is not going to be exemplary, but we are going to try to fight like crazy to get in and win that championship.”

New Mexico’s team consists of 16 returners and 22 newcomers. The coaching staff also has new faces in pitching coach Brandon Higelin, assistant coach/recruiting coordinator Jon Coyne and volunteer assistant coach Nate Causey.

While the season hasn’t started yet, the Lobos already encountered their first challenge as junior Cody Dye suffered from an injury and will be out for the season. However, the pitcher’s roster includes six other returning players.

This year the Lobos are seen as underdogs. The Mountain West selected New Mexico to finished sixth out of seven teams in the conference, with back-to-back MW tournament champion San Diego State predicted to finish on top.

Senior Jared Mang was named to the Preseason All-MW Team for the second-consecutive year. Isabel Gonzalez/The Lobo Lair

Jared Mang
On Wednesday, senior outfielder Jared Mang was named to the 2019 Preseason All-Mountain West Team, this is his second-consecutive year.

Sophomore year: Mang hit .373 (90-for-241) with 63 runs scored, 17 doubles, two triples, nine home runs, and 62 RBIs. 

Junior year: He only saw 29 appearances due to injuries. Mang made the best out of it as he batted .284 (29-for-102), scored 27 runs, drove in 29 and hit a team-high eight home runs.

Mang said he was excited for his senior year, which would give him and his team a chance to prove last year was not a good representation of Lobo baseball.

“It’s just a great chance to compete. We get a chance for us to write our own story,” he said. “We don’t have to listen to anything about last year because that’s not us anymore. It’s a new year and we are just ready to go on battle.”