The New Mexico baseball team will hit the road for its next eight games, beginning with a four-game series this weekend at Fresno State.
UNM (10-13) is coming off two frustrating midweek losses to Stephen F. Austin, while the Bulldogs (13-11) have lost two of three since a season-high five-game winning streak ended on March 23.
“We’ve played 70 ballgames in the last three years against teams that were either top 25, been to (the College World Series in) Omaha in the last three years, RPI is 30 or better — good teams, and this is one of them,” Lobos coach Ray Birmingham said.
“Right now, I don’t know that they’re as they were with the national championship team in ’08. (But) they’ve always been the scourge of the Western Athletic Conference. They’re a very good program.”
Both the Lobos and Bulldogs have experienced their fair share of frustration this season as both have young lineups and pitching staffs.
Fresno State lost five position players to the draft last summer, as well as its top two starting pitchers and closer.
As for the Bulldogs who remain, UNM sophomore right-hander Jake McCasland said the Lobos know they still have plenty of talent.
“I do know they can hit, though, so we’re definitely going to have to pick our pitching up for sure if we want to compete with them,” McCasland said.
Bulldogs first baseman Trent Garrison (.333, eight RBI) has come back from a season-ending knee injury that knocked him out for all of 2011. Senior second baseman Patrick Hutcheson (.310, one homer, nine RBI) and sophomore outfielder Aaron Judge (.288, two homers, 11 RBI) have helped Garrison carry the offense so far.
Highly-touted freshman shortstop Chris Mariscal (.228, 15 RBI) and outfielder Jordan Luplow (.208, eight RBI) have struggled.
Fresno’s strength has been on the mound, no surprise for a program that has produced Major League pitchers such as Jeff Weaver, Kevin Appier and active starters Matt Garza of the Cubs and Doug Fister of the Tigers.
Sophomore left-hander Tyler Linehan (3-2, 1.47 ERA) has emerged as the staff ace through six starts. He will start Friday’s 7:05 p.m. opener against the Lobos’ Josh Walker (1-2, 4.43), who will be making just his second start of the season.
The rest of the weekend matchups will feature Justin Haley (3-1, 2.06) versus UNM’s Austin House (1-3, 3.35) in the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader; freshman Garrett Mundell (0-1, 5.93) gets the nod in the second game against Rudy Jaramillo (2-1, 7.20).
The Lobos have not announced a Sunday starter, while the Bulldogs will go with senior Thomas Harlan (3-4, 2.20).
In the end, however, it will be less about who UNM is facing than what the Lobos do to improve after the midweek losses.
“I think it’s more up to us as a team to look into the mirror and kind of see what we’re doing, fix the things we need to fix and keep doing the little things right,” freshman right fielder Ryan Padilla said. “That’s key for us.”
Birmingham said the Lobos should relish the challenge this weekend, which he hopes will get his team back on track after it won two of three against Texas Christian last weekend.
“So this is another good program, four games at their place, which nobody wants to do that,” Birmingham said. “We’re going to do it because what we’re trying to do is get it all right by the time we get back into conference, win the conference championship and get on and win the conference tournament. That’s the most important thing.”
The games in Fresno will be followed by a Tuesday game at New Mexico State — the Aggies have won 13 in a row and are 22-8 overall now — and then four games at Air Force next weekend, where the weather can often wreak more havoc than the Falcons.
The Lobos will return home April 9 for a two-game series against No. 14-ranked Arizona State.