Title hunt: Turnaround has UNM baseball battling for Mountain West crown

May 9—To say things weren't looking good for the University of New Mexico baseball team on April 13 may be an understatement.

The Lobos had just squandered a late lead and landed on the wrong end of a 23-19 decision against Fresno State. It was UNM's eighth consecutive loss and dropped its record to 16-17. The Lobos were 7-7 in Mountain West play and in fifth place in the league standings — barely within shouting distance of first-place Fresno State (25-9 overall and 14-3 in conference at the time).

Less than four weeks later, things look entirely different.

The Lobos (25-21, 14-10) go into this weekend's final home series against Nevada with a conference title in their sights. Remarkably, UNM is tied with Fresno State for first place in the jumbled, ridiculously tight MWC standings with two weekends left in the regular season.

"It's wild west baseball," Lobos coach Tod Brown said. "There are lots of runs scored and seven teams who can all beat each other on a given day. With six games left, we can win a conference title, miss the (four-team) Mountain West tournament or anything in between. It doesn't get much tighter than this."

Thanks to Fresno State's recent free fall (the Bulldogs are 2-12 in their last 14 games with seven straight MWC losses), five teams are in the regular-season title hunt. UNM and FSU are 14-10 in league play, with Nevada and Air Force a game back at 13-11. San Jose State (14-13 and on a conference open week) could still surpass any of the top four.

The top four finishers advance to the MWC tournament, May 23-25 in San Diego.

"It's a horse race," said UNM senior pitcher Brett Russell. "This is my third year here and I haven't seen anything like this. But I love the competition. This is what you sign up for."

To a man, the Lobos gladly would have signed up to be in this position four weeks ago. The team was struggling mightily and a late run at a conference crown seemed unlikely at best.

What sparked the Lobos' turnaround?

Russell and junior outfielder Khalil Walker have been two of the catalysts. Russell has been a stabilizing force on the mound since moving from the bullpen to the Lobos' starting rotation, while Walker has been swinging a red-hot bat.

Both point to a players-only meeting in mid-April as a turning point.

"I think the biggest takeaway from that was taking pressure off ourselves," Russell said. "We got our minds together, shifted our goals and started being more process-oriented instead of results-oriented. I think that was really helpful and guys started having more fun."

Walker, who has been having as much fun as any Lobo recently, agreed.

"We just had to get things off our chests and remind ourselves that baseball isn't life," Walker said. "When we're playing free and having fun, we tend to have success."

Walker, playing his first Division I season after transferring from Eastern Arizona College, has been locked-in at the plate for the past month. He's riding a 17-game hitting streak and batting a team- and MWC-best .410. During his hitting streak, Walker is batting .491 (27-for-55) and has hit all of his three home runs.

"When I hit one out, it's an accident," Walker said with a laugh. "I'm different than everyone else in our lineup. The other eight guys are all capable of hitting home runs — my job is to get on base. I've been feeling good at the plate lately but I try not to think about streaks or anything like that. I just want to win."

The Lobos as a group are swinging the bats well, ranking first in the MWC and fifth nationally with a .325 team batting average. Pitching has been another story as UNM ranks last in the league with a combined 8.49 ERA.

Still, since losing that April 13 slugfest to Fresno State, UNM pitching has held foes to five runs or fewer seven times. The Lobos are 7-0 in those games.

"We have pitched better," Brown said. "and we've been more efficient with the bats, too, scoring more runs. Things have been coming together and we've put ourselves in a good position. It all comes down to playing our best baseball now."