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Ray Birmingham is changing more than the face of New Mexico's program.
The Lobos have never been a consistent regional contender. But when Birmingham took the job three seasons ago, he was absolutely appalled at what he saw behind the scenes. Even programs with no history showed more commitment.
New Mexico was unorganized. There was equipment scattered around the clubhouse and batting cages. The paint on the batting cages and facilities was coming off and the nets in the batting cages were in pitiful shape.
Birmingham spent 18 successful seasons prior to his UNM stint as the head coach at New Mexico Junior College, where he guided the program to a JUCO national title in 2005.
He knows what it takes for a program to compete at an elite level. New Mexico was anything but that when he took the job.
"When I took this job, this program didn't believe in anything," Birmingham said. "Everything around here was an absolute mess and we had a baseball team that was just interested in trying to finish out the schedule."
Lucky for Birmingham, it didn't take the Lobos long to get the hint.
The Lobos finished Birmingham's first season with a 34-25 record.
Last season, the Lobos took a huge step forward. They finished second in the Mountain West behind TCU and compiled an impressive 37-20 record that included a two-game road series sweep over Texas A&M and a home series win over San Diego State.
"The one big thing about Coach Birmingham is that he is great at getting everyone to believe in a common goal around here," New Mexico outfielder Max Willett said. "He makes us believe we're blue-collar athletes that have to work for everything we want to achieve. He also is a great hitting coach, too."
Despite showing marked improvement record-wise last season, the Lobos fell just short of making an NCAA regional because they had an unimpressive RPI.
"It's definitely extra motivation for this season that we didn't make a regional last season," Willett said. "Last season didn't turn out the way we wanted it to. Some of that was our fault and some of it was out of our control. We just have to get out there and play the game.â
The Lobos took control on opening weekend.
Despite being heavy underdogs against previously No. 1-ranked Texas, the Lobos fought back from a series-opening loss to shock the Longhorns – and the nation.
The Longhorns won Game 1 with All-American Taylor Jungmann on the mound. But the Lobos used a late rally in Game 2 and a brilliant pitching performance from starter Mike Lachapelle in Game 3 to capture the series.
"After we lost the first game, we went into the locker room and all the players said we can beat these guys. That made us feel really good," Birmingham said. "We've been trying to prove the past couple of seasons we can go out there and play against anyone. I think this series showed that."
The series also showed the nation that perhaps New Mexico does take baseball seriously, at least with Birmingham leading the way.
The Lobos, however, could ruin the good feelings from winning the Texas series if they lose series to either Northern Colorado or Southern California the next two weekends.
UNM isn't looking back or too far ahead, though. It knows how it feels to be snubbed from a regional. It also knows it has much more to accomplish to reach its goals.
It's full speed ahead. Just the way Birmingham wanted it from day one.
"We're moving forward from that series," Birmingham said. "Our attitude is workmanlike and we're just having fun out there. We like where we're headed."
Florida State: The Seminoles got off to a fantastic start against Georgia State. They scored 37 runs in three days, and they also received strong starting pitching performances from Sean Gilmartin and John Gast. FSU couldn't have asked for a better start to the season.
Georgia Tech: Yeah, it appears the Yellow Jackets have some pitching. The Jackets are 4-0 after Tuesday's win over Georgia Southern and have outscored their opponents (Missouri State and Georgia Southern) 47-3. What an amazing start for the Jackets.
Florida: Freshman pitcher Brian Johnson had a fantastic debut for the Gators, who swept South Florida in impressive fashion. The offense did a nice job against the Bulls. But the pitching staff, led by Johnson and Friday starter Tommy Toledo, was even more impressive. This is an excellent club.
Stanford: The Cardinal entered the season with some question marks at the plate, but the lineup fared well against Rice on opening weekend. Also, pitcher Scott Snodgress had a solid outing against a stout Rice lineup. Stanford has a tough series coming up against Texas, but the Rice series was a huge confidence booster.
New Mexico: By now, everyone knows why the Lobos are listed as red-hot. After losing the season opener to previously No. 1 Texas, the Lobos bounced back to win Games 2 and 3 against the Longhorns. Most impressive was the performance by starting pitcher Mike Lachapelle on Sunday. Lachapelle allowed just one run and seven hits in six innings.
Rice: It's not often we talk about the Owls getting swept in a weekend series, but they had a tough first weekend against Stanford. Their pitching was inconsistent and the offensive lineup only was good at times. The Owls return home this weekend for a tournament. It'll be interesting to see which team shows up.
South Florida: The Bulls blew a perfect opportunity to make a statement the first weekend of the season. Florida swept them in impressive fashion. USF ace pitcher Randy Fontanez started Game 1 and allowed six runs and seven hits in just 6 2/3 innings. USF must now find a way to record some marquee wins elsewhere on its schedule.
Eastern Illinois: After missing an NCAA regional last season, the Panthers entered this season with high hopes. But Southeastern Louisiana swept them on opening weekend. Now the Panthers need to record victories in upcoming series against UAB and USF in order to have a regional be a reasonable expectation this season.
Houston: The Cougars couldn't have had a worse first weekend. Texas State shut them out on opening day and proceeded to win the final two games of the series to complete the sweep. UH must take care of Santa Clara this weekend before playing a very challenging field at the Astros College Classic in two weeks.
Loyola Marymount: It's obvious coach Jason Gill has a rebuilding project on his hands. The Lions lost several key cogs from last year's club, which almost made an NCAA regional. LMU (0-5) began the season with three losses to UC Irvine before dropping contests to Oregon and USC.
Will Texas bounce back this weekend? The Longhorns don't have much time to sulk about their tough home series loss to New Mexico. The 'Horns return to the diamond this weekend to face a Stanford club that swept Rice the first weekend of the season. All eyes are on UT's offense, which didn't have a great weekend against the Lobos. A series loss to the Cardinal would make it hard for the Longhorns to earn a high ranking for at least several weekends. Also, another non-conference series loss could mean the 'Horns have to do even more in Big 12 play to earn a national seed.
Can Cal State Fullerton bounce back against TCU? The Titans didn't have a very good showing against Pepperdine and Oregon over the weekend. But perhaps that Sunday win over Long Beach State will get this program back on track. The Titans could alleviate any serious concerns this weekend with a series win over a TCU club that thrashed Sam Houston State on opening weekend. It's a huge series for both clubs.
USC and UCLA have chances to make statements: It's snowing in Texas and USC and UCLA are off to hot starts. It's a strange time, indeed. But in all seriousness, the Trojans and Bruins could make bold statements this weekend in the Dodgertown Classic. Both clubs will face Vanderbilt and Oklahoma State, with the two teams playing each other in Sunday's tournament finale at Dodger Stadium. Both teams obviously have a chance to finish the tournament with a losing record. But if one or both finish the tourney with a winning record, the Pac-10 race this season will be even more fun than we originally thought. It's a big weekend for both teams.
Who shines in the Baseball at the Beach tournament? In what is expected to be a fantastic tournament, UC Irvine, James Madison, Coastal Carolina and N.C. State will fight it out this weekend. Irvine will play Coastal Carolina twice, starting with an epic matchup involving stud pitchers Danny Bibona and Cody Wheeler. The rest of the weekend also should be great with James Madison expected to have a great offensive lineup and N.C. State off to an incredibly hot start at the plate. This will be one of the season's best tournaments.
Sometimes better results eventually come with new facilities.
Texas State is on the fast track, though.
The Bobcats used to play in one of the worst Division I facilities in Texas. But they opened a quaint new ballpark last season.
Perhaps the stadium's construction gave the Bobcats a renewed hope of the program's direction.
The Bobcats won the Southland Conference regular-season title and earned an at-large bid to the NCAA postseason, where they competed in the NCAA regional.
Texas State finished last season with a 41-17 record.
This season, the Bobcats once again are off to a great start.
They began the season with a three-game series at Houston, which should compete for a regional berth out of Conference USA. But the Bobcats made easy work of the Cougars with a three-game sweep.
Texas State coach Ty Harrington, who is in his 11th season in San Marcos, Texas, answered a few questions about his rising mid-major program.
Rogers: Did making an NCAA regional last season as a No. 3 seed give the program some confidence even without some key cogs entering this season?
Harrington: I hope so and think so on confidence. I would like to think that success creates an environment of success. It makes you have higher accountability for your players and coaches. I also think success creates confidence. If we want to live up to what other teams have done, we have to work extremely hard. I think that has to create a much more successful environment.
Rogers: What were your thoughts heading into the Houston series and what are your thoughts after the three-game set?
Harrington: I think there was a lot of interest and excitement entering the series because we were curious who was going to step in and fill some big roles that were open after losing some guys in the offseason. As for the series, I thought we played adequately at the plate and created some run opportunities for ourselves. We had some big hits late in Game 3 that were huge for us. We just took advantage of opportunities and got better as each game progressed. Overall, pitching was the key to the weekend. With the exception of two innings, I thought we pitched at a very high level.
Rogers: Speaking of the pitching staff, Michael Russo and Brian Borski threw very well. Thoughts on their outings and anyone else that stood out?
Harrington: We used Russo at the back end of our bullpen last season and moved him to the starting rotation this season. We're starting him early in the year this season to figure out how he fits into the mold as a weekend starter. He threw six shutout innings against Houston and definitely will get another opportunity to start. He was very tough and is a 88 mph type of guy with a very good slider. He spent the offseason trying to redevelop his changeup, too. As for Borski, he is a returning starter that we're very high on. He was in our Saturday spot last season and is just an incredibly competitive pitcher with two good pitches. He's not overpowering and throws around 86-88 mph. He just really knows how to command two pitches and gives us a chance to win each game. As for others, very excited about reliever Carson Smith. He was 94-95 mph on the gun. He was very good.
Rogers: What are your thoughts on this team moving forward?
Harrington: We had a good weekend at the plate against Houston, but there's still a lot of concern in replacing some of the key departures at the plate. We do feel that we have a chance to be a very good baseball team down the road, though. It was a good first weekend for us.
What is your take on what coach Rick Jones is doing at Tulane?
Jones definitely needs to have a good season to get the Green Wave back in good standing on the national stage, but I don't believe his job is in jeopardy. There's no question everyone thought Tulane was in fantastic shape after being the No. 1 seed in the College World Series back in 2005. But since that point, the Green Wave have been good at times but far from great. They failed to make a regional in '07 but responded with a solid 39-22 record two seasons ago. Last season, though, the Green Wave finished the campaign with a 34-25 and no regional appearance. Tulane is not an easy place to win from a financial and recruiting standpoint. However, a good season is needed. With LSU dominating the regional college baseball scene, the Green Wave must find a way to turn the tide.
It looks like Minnesota will be lucky to make an NCAA regional. Should I already find my drink of choice to drown my sorrows?
It's only the second week of the season and someone is jumping off the ledge after their team won a series over Akron. Wow, harsh fans up there in Minneapolis. Sure, the Golden Gophers didn't have an impressive weekend at the plate. But by the same token, it was very impressive to see what Seth Rosin, Scott Fern, Allen Bechstein and Billy Soule did on the mound. Even with a few question marks at the plate, this team will make a regional. Go ahead and put that bottle back in the cabinet. It's not good for your health.
Will Texas struggle at the plate for most of the season?
It's actually a surprise to me that some are surprised with UT's struggles at the plate. This is a team that simply didn't hit well most of last season before the NCAA postseason. The Longhorns finished last season with an unimpressive batting average. They also looked unimpressive on opening weekend outside of Cameron Rupp and Connor Rowe. But also remember it was the first weekend of the season. The Longhorns have much work to do at the plate, but there's still a lot of baseball to be played. UT really needs a strong offensive weekend against Stanford to silence some doubters. The New Mexico series, though, did create some concerns.
It was an important weekend for Ohio State coach Bob Todd and LSU coach Paul Mainieri. Todd earned his 1,000th career win with a convincing victory over Richmond. Mainieri accomplished the same feat as the Tigers captured a victory over Centenary. Stetson's Pete Dunn also deserves recognition. The longtime coach of the Hatters recorded his 1,100th career win in a mid-week victory over Siena … Michigan outfielder Ryan LaMarre was injured over the weekend making a play in the field. The result of his injury is a broken thumb. He will miss a few weeks because of the injury … Arkansas infielder Bo Bigham suffered a shoulder injury diving for a ball and will miss a minimum of four weeks. The Razorbacks plan on using Zack Cox and Tim Carver in his absence … Tennessee first baseman and All-American Cody Hawn is day-to-day with a left shoulder strain and may or may not play against Oregon State in an important series this weekend … UC Riverside pitcher Matt Larkins injured his knee diving for a ball against BYU this past weekend. His status moving forward is still unknown as the Highlanders continue to assess his situation … Fans of the SEC sure do love their baseball. In attendance figures for opening weekend, the SEC had the top four spots: LSU, Arkansas, Mississippi and South Carolina. LSU averaged 10,992 fans per game against Centenary. Arkansas averaged 7,300, Ole Miss averaged 7,171 and South Carolina averaged 7,072 … Auburn outfielder Justin Fradejas suffered a severe hand injury over the weekend and only will be in a pinch-runner role the next few weeks. Fradejas will not be allowed to hit until his hand heals.
Virginia Tech: The Hokies narrowly missed an NCAA regional last season because they lacked marquee wins. Now, the Hokies will be forced to upset some teams in ACC play. The Hokies started their season with a 1-2 record down in South Carolina, dropping contests to Kentucky and Coastal Carolina and defeating West Virginia. Tech will have little room for error in ACC play. After all, the Hokies finish non-conference play with series against Charleston Southern, Long Island and Rider. Simply awful.
New Mexico: The opposite of the Hokies, the Lobos narrowly missed an NCAA regional last season. Now, they already have a huge road series victory. The Lobos took two of three from Texas this past weekend and should fair well the rest of conference play. UNM makes a trip to USC in a couple of weeks. That series will be another measuring stick for this program. Take care of the Trojans and finish second in the Mountain West. UNM is in a regional if that happens.
East Carolina: The Pirates entered the season with their sights set on earning a national seed and a trip to Omaha. Well, that makes this weekend's series against South Carolina even bigger than previously thought. After losing its first series to Virginia, ECU must take care of business against the Gamecocks to have a good shot at a national seed at the end of the regular season. Even with a strong finish in Conference USA, series losses to Virginia and South Carolina would likely keep the Pirates out of the national seed discussion.
It's a long season and sometimes it helps to give some travel trips. As the season progresses, we'll give the restaurants and other attractions to visit of the cities we visit throughout the spring. In our first trip of the season, we look at Greenville, N.C.
Professor O'Cools: East Carolina might have the best athletic department hosts of any trip I've ever made. OK, I'll just say it, the Pirates have the best hosts. The main stop of the weekend was at Professor O'Cools, a popular restaurant and pub in the Greenville, N.C., area. The food is excellent, starting with the Golden Burger, and you can always find a passionate Elvis impersonator giving it his all on the karaoke. Definitely a great place to visit, and it's near the ECU campus.
Boli's on the Boulevard: There's much more to this place than just being known as the place where former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin once watched a debate between John McCain and President Barack Obama in the last election. I promise I'm on a health kick most of the time, but the pizza at this place is phenomenal. Not exactly something you expect in the heart of North Carolina. But for those of you like me always look for at least some sort of healthy option, the side salad with balsamic vinaigrette is excellent as well. Another conveniently located eatery in Greenville.
Tavern on 4th Street: Want to see what the Greenville nightlife is all about? This is a fantastic place conveniently located in the heart of Greenville. In addition to the crowds that roll into this place, the live music also was fantastic. There's even an outside area for those of you wanting to enjoy a few rays while you enjoy a bite to eat or drink.
B's Barbecue: We're going to have to take the advice of the locals on this one. Personally, I wasn't up for the early morning wake-up call for pulled pork. But the locals in Greenville say B's is the best barbecue in the area, and perhaps even the State of North Carolina. Also, much love to a place that closes down once the food that was prepared in the morning is all gone. Have to love a setup like that.
- New Mexico