The University of New Mexico baseball team opens the season Friday at Hawaii with one major wish — a clean bill of health. Well, that and an eventual return to the postseason.
“We’ve got a great team, we’ve got something to be proud of and if the dear lord will keep us from getting hurt, I think we’ll make it happen, we’ll put another number on that wall,” coach Ray Birmingham said, referring to where UNM lists its years of postseason play and conference championships. “That’s our motto, to put another number on that wall just like the previous five years.”
The 2015 Lobos were battered by injuries to the lineup and the pitching staff, yet they still battled to a 32-27 overall record, including 17-13 in the Mountain West Conference. UNM missed out on an NCAA berth for just the second time since 2010.
The current Lobos are not 100-percent healthy yet, as junior center fielder Danny Collier (.346/.433/.418, 28 RBI in 2015) is still recovering from offseason surgery. He will be available to pinch hit this weekend, Birmingham said.
Even without Collier at the outset, UNM should have plenty in the tank as far as position players go. Junior first baseman Jack Zoellner (.352/.447/.545, 4 HR, 33 RBI) and sophomore third baseman Carl Stajduhar (.322/.386/.545, 9 HR, 53 RBI) will lead the way.
“We’ve got a lot of guys coming back that were on injuries and battled through injuries last year,” Stajduhar said. “I think it just shows the toughness of this team.”
The rest of the infield is in a bit of flux. After serving as the team’s primary designated hitter last year, junior Chris DeVito (.314/.398/.532, 6 HR, 39 RBI) will move back to his old position of catcher, replacing Cory Voss, who transferred to a junior college.
“It’s the defensive catching spot that I’m worried about,” Birmingham said. “Can DeVito hold up (physically)? We’ll find out.”
Fifth-year senior Michael Eaton, an Albuquerque native who transferred from San Francisco, will take over at second base. Though his numbers for the Dons (.286/.337/.357) might not look overwhelming, Birmingham said those will go up.
“He’s learned that Lobo swing,” Birmingham said. “He was already a great defender and now we’ve gotten better at second base; he might be our best hitter.”
Shortstop remains up for grabs between a pair of seniors who battled injuries in 2015. Dalton Bowers was exceptional with the glove but failed to hit (.218/.326/.293), while Jared Holley (.254/.342/.357) fared slightly better.
“I don’t want anybody to feel comfortable that they own a spot,” Birmingham said. “I think (competition) is how people get better.”
With Collier out, the outfield alignment has been shuffled somewhat. Sophomore Reece Weber (.375/.500/.550, 19 RBI) will start in right, while sophomore Luis Gonzalez (.299/.405/.496, 4 HR, 23 RBI) starts in center and freshman Jared Mang gets the nod in left.
As for the pitching staff, junior lefty Carson Schneider (5-1, 3.68 ERA) continues his transition from setup reliever to starter. He will get the nod in Friday’s opener against the Warriors.
Following Schneider in the rotation will be sophomore right-hander Tyler Stevens (5-4, 3.44), senior lefty Colton Thomson (1-1, 4.39) and sophomore right-hander James Harrington (1-1, 7.11). Thomson made just five starts last year before suffering an elbow injury; he was granted a medical redshirt for a fifth year of eligibility.
“I think we have pretty good depth this year and everything,” Schneider said. “It’s a lot better than it has been over the past years and if everyone does what they’re supposed to do, we’ll have a pretty good pitching staff.”
The bullpen will again be led by senior right-hander Victor Sanchez (1-4, 6.96, 2 saves), who is looking to bounce back to his excellent 2014 form. Junior college transfer Fernando Fernandez, a lefty, will work in a setup role.
After this series, UNM will return home for three games against Wichita State from Feb. 26-28. Another three games at home will follow March 4-6 against Dallas Baptist.