(Photo via the Lobos wesbite seen here)
The University of New Mexico (UNM) Lobos are accustomed to having a high-powered offense, finishing in the top ten NCAA Division I teams for batting average in 2017. This season, they entered expecting to match that success. Unfortunately, their upperclassmen stars have battled injuries all season, and the team has had nine freshmen in the starting lineup for many games.
“It’s been a lot of young kids getting college at bats for the first time in their lives,” Head Coach Ray Birmingham said. Those young kids have performed well with Connor Mang, Daniel Zakosek and Brayden Merritt all stepping up as freshman, and Justin Watari stepping up as a sophomore, but the team’s batting average sits at .260 on the season.
If the 2018 batting average of those four players was combined with the 2017 batting averages of Jared Mang, Danny Collier and Hayden Schilling, three upperclassmen standouts who fought injuries this year, their combined batting average would be .319, putting them in the top five NCAA Division I teams this season.
Of course, baseball comes with ups and downs, but such a big difference is disheartening, especially for a program with so much success traditionally. In Coach Birmingham’s past ten years with the UNM Baseball Program, the team has had only one season with a win percentage less than .500, this season they are sitting at a win percentage of .351 with six games left in the season.
“It’s a rebuilding year, and we haven’t gone through that since I’ve been here,” Coach Birmingham said. The plan for the end of the season was to get their younger players as much experience as possible to set them up for success next year.
Part of the potential for success next year will be due to their pitching success. The team will return sophomore starter Nathaniel Garley, who posts a 3.78 ERA in 16 starts and junior relief pitcher Malachai Emond who posts a 2.87 ERA in 21 appearances. They have also gotten quality innings out of senior right-handed pitcher Cody Dye this season.
One of the toughest disappointments this year was the knuckle injury to junior outfielder Jared Mang. Before the injury, Mang was looking to enter the MLB draft this summer. Due to the injury he had to sit out many games, and struggled to produce up to his previous standard. Even with the injury, Mang holds the teams highest slugging percentage at .549. Mang will return next season, hopefully injury free, to take another shot at making it.
“It’s sweet and sour because I really wanted that for him,” Coach Birmingham said of Mang’s return to the team. Though Mang’s presence, as a leader and in the lineup, will help UNM, it comes at a high price.
Despite the difficulty, the team stuck together and worked on improving their skills. Coach Birmingham has hope for this squad because they’ve supported each other even though it hasn’t been easy. Coach Birmingham even describes them as inspirational. Hopefully next year will see the Lobos return to their usual offensive form.