ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Expectation and injury highlight the collision out west this weekend between the Houston Cougars from the American Athletic Conference and the Mountain West defending champion New Mexico Lobos at Isotopes Park in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Both squads entered 2015 with high hopes that have taken threatening shots just a month into the season setting up their bracket critical battle this weekend.
Houston heads to Albuquerque having fallen from a No. 7 preseason ranking to being totally out of the latest College Baseball Central Top 25 after running through a bumpy couple of weeks of play. The Cougars started high in the poll due to the level of returning talent from a 2014 squad that lost in the Austin Super Regional to Texas.
Houston opened 2015 hot, but has run into a couple of weeks of struggle that the experienced team seems to be shaking off, having won six straight and defeating No. 6 Rice 8-3 in a midweek game.
The feisty Lobos have finished atop the Mountain West Conference for three straight seasons and have established an expectation of success. However, getting bumped from the MWC tournament in back-to-back losses to San Diego State and Nevada cost New Mexico a post-season berth and the three-time champs stayed home while UNLV and San Diego State went to Regionals.
Any hopes at early season vengeance may have been squandered so far with a series loss to Nevada last weekend. The Lobos have lost three straight including a 4-3 loss at No. 13 Arizona State in the midweek and trail the Wolf Pack by 1.5 games in serious need of a boost in their out-of-conference RPI to bolster post-season hopes in 2015.
|Team||Conference||Overall W-L||Conference W-L||*RPI||*SOS|
|New Mexico||Mountain West||11-7||5-4||31||35|
*RPI and SOS calculated from Warren Nolan’s site following 3/18/15 games used.
One thing both schools have experienced that neither could actually plan for has been the injury bug that has viciously ravaged both locker rooms. Just this week the Cougars announced that usual Saturday starter, junior right-hander Jake Lemoine is going to be on the shelf for a few weeks in an attempt to resolve a lingering arm issue that has plagued him all season.
Lemoine lasted only 1.2 innings last week against Buffalo, being pulled after only 36 pitches, and for any close observer its’ obvious that something isn’t exactly right with this remarkable right-handed talent. The junior, named to four pre-season All-American squads, entered 2015 with a career 3.11 ERA and averaging three long balls allowed per season. However, 2015 has been a battle as he sits at a 4.50 ERA and three homers allowed in just his first five appearances of the season.
However, not to be outdone, the Lobos will also be missing their Saturday starter as senior southpaw Colton Thomson will be out this weekend. Thomson had a twinge in his elbow that forced his short outing this weekend against Nevada. Even though the MRI is clear, Lobos head coach Ray Birmingham is opting for caution in holding the senior out of his start this Saturday.
Cougars’ Sunday starter Aaron Garza (Sr., RHP) is dealing with nerve issues and is cautiously being used only in short stint work until those clear up. These injuries leave the weekend rotation in flux after Friday night and could make for quite an intriguing series from a pitching standpoint.
Setting The Table
Houston has benefitted from quite a duo of table-setters as juniors Kyle Survance (OF) and Josh Vidales (INF) have exemplified what it means to set the table in a baseball lineup. Survance, a pre-season All-American, is hitting .294/.376/.394 primarily out of the leadoff spot and has stolen 15 bases already this season which puts him on pace for 35-plus steals this season. The outfielder has scored 18 times and driven in 12 as a spark plug at the top of the lineup.
Yet Vidales is proving to be a power bat in the two-hole hitting .387/.560/.500 with two homers with 19 each runs scored and RBI. Vidales carries a .173 isolated slugging percentage that demonstrates his power prowess with a pair of triples as well.
Table-setters like these make huge meals for the 3-5 spots to gobble up for big innings that can lead to big wins as Houston looks to get the season back on track just in time for American Athletic Conference play.
Why Just One?
Why settle for just one base when you can have more? Such seems to be not necessarily the philosophy but definitely the result of the swings coming out of New Mexico sophomore Chris DeVito and Houston junior Chris Iriart.
DeVito has eight extra-base-hits, including four long balls, with an ISO of .267 and leads the Lobos in homers and RBI (17). Coach Birmingham believes the sophomore would probably have hit nine big flies if he played in less pitcher-friendly park. DeVito is swinging a mean stick in the season’s early going and is crucial to the big-inning production for New Mexico.
The ball is also exploding off the bat held in the hands of Iriart with a .243 ISO and four dingers of his own to lead the Cougars. The junior has driven in 14 and is a premier power threat in a Houston lineup that head coach Todd Whitting says, “has more power than my teams in the past, I can let guys sit back and drive in runs.”
Year One, No Problem
Most incoming freshman have a period of adjustment, getting used to a game that is moving a lot faster being played against other guys who were the big man on campus last year as well. However, each team boasts a fantastic freshman that is not just breaking the mold but is obliterating even the thought that such a mold even exists in their cases.
One of the most coveted freshman talents in the southwest, Connor Wong, holds down short for the Cougars yet isn’t in the spot necessarily for defensive reasons. Wong’s numbers at the plate, .265/.422/.323 with two homers and triples each, are solid for a freshman, but being the team’s No. 2 RBI man with 18 driven in adds to the value this youngster brings to the Cougars’ lineup while his fielding improves as the game slows down.
“He (Wong) is a middle of the lineup type of hitter,” says Whitting, “the game is still moving a little fast for him at shortstop but he is getting better and will improve in the field as the season goes on.”
Yet, just across the diamond this weekend New Mexico boasts of young backstop Cory Voss who hits with big power at the plate while managing the pitching staff defensively. Voss has a .314 ISO, which is unheard of for a freshman, with a .353/.667/.431 run at the plate, a pair of long balls and four three-baggers. Voss has knocked in 14 runs for the Lobos and is not only swinging a consistent stick but has the pop to be a long-term game-changer in middle of the Lobos lineup.
Coach Birmingham, known for his skills in improving hitters said, “Cory Voss hits with big power…came in with a tight swing and he drives the ball well.”
Houston boasted of a trio (Lantrip, Lemoine, Garza) of experienced weekend hurlers in a rotation that would help them dominate weekends during the season. Many of their early high poll rankings were based on the expected performances of this group.
Yet, this series will see only one of them take the bump for the Cougars as sophomore righty Andrew Lantrip (4-1, 1.27) must represent the big three all by his lonesome in this pivotal weekend set. The sophomore has tossed three quality starts on the year with his only loss on the year coming at the hands of the No. 2 LSU Tigers at the Houston College Classic.
The right-hander is posting big numbers with a 7.5 strike-out-to-walk ratio while fanning 7.6 hitters per nine innings. Opponents are hitting a smidge over .200 against him (.209) and he has a 0.88 WHIP on the year which is ranked No. 64 in the nation.
For Whom The Bell Tolls
The main cog in the New Mexico pitching arsenal is the intelligent and crafty Toller Boardman (Jr., LHP) may be the only normal weekend arm taking the hill for the Lobos. Boardman showed his amazing mettle, tossing 8.1 innings against the prolific No. 23 Nevada Wolf Pack offense, holding them to a single run in a win last Friday.
The southpaw pitches to contact and is unbeaten at 4-0 with a 2.43 ERA with an average of only 4.9 strikeouts per nine. Boardman is allowing a .262 OBA with a 6.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio and has a WHIP of 1.05 with impressive performances so far.
Birmingham thinks Toller, “is a first-class kid…an Andy Pettite-type of pitcher who makes pitches that get you to get yourself out.”
The junior has four quality starts in five outings this season, also taking down the spunky bats of San Diego State, allowing the Aztecs an earned run over 6.1 innings of work. If Drew Bridges (Jr., RHP) can get back to properly locating his pitches he will get back into the weekend rotation but surrendering 10 walks in 6.1 innings of work in his last three starts is a problem that has to be settled quickly.
A Common Devil
Houston has overcome the weight of expectations and the damage caused by early season injuries to key players to be on a six-game winning streak. Before the season even left the gate the Cougars lost Michael Pyeatt (Sr, OF) .297/.360/.374 with 21 RBI and 20 runs in 2014 to a foot injury that will keep him out indefinitely. Projected closer Bubba Maxwell (Jr., RHP) underwent Tommy John surgery that took him out of the equation. Then on opening day sophomore Connor Hollis, preseason all Mountain West third-baseman, went down with a broken hand.
The Cougars have done their best to piecemeal and keep the engine running but the adjustments have led to some key early season losses that must be shaken off, and the only way to shake loose is to keep winning.
However, New Mexico has been under the injury devil as well which has affected their running game. Junior Sam Haggerty and sophomore Daniel Collier have been slowed by injuries that have impacted what the pair is able to contribute in the move-‘em-over aspect of the Lobos offense.
Couple these injuries with the youth on a squad that didn’t have much D1 experience to boast of when the season kicked off. However, with each game and series this young and talented squad gets healthier and more experienced and will continue to grow closer to meeting the expectations that come with being a Lobo under Birmingham.
While New Mexico’s at-large bid hopes for the post-season will need some help, with the Mountain West slate and season-ending tournament still to come, the series this weekend becomes important not only for post-season hopes but also for the top-level experience value it can provide this young team as well.
The Cougars have the respect of the collegiate realm having lost to Texas in the Super Regionals last season after hunting down the LSU Tigers in the Baton Rouge Regional. Most expect Houston to again dominate the AAC but will need to overcome the likes of experienced No. 16 UCF and Tulane who are each already having success in an improved conference. The Cougars need the out-of-conference RPI boost that a series win in Albuquerque would provide. However, the Lobos present an interesting offensive challenge to the Cougars.
Whitting sees New Mexico’s offense as, “a really young team whose numbers aren’t great yet,” but noted that “Birmingham is one of the best offensive minds in the nation and the Lobos are a sleeping giant on offense that is about to wake up.”
On the other hand, New Mexico has put themselves into a solid position with their MWC slate ahead. The next 11 games will be a knock-out blow to this young team unless they gain experience quickly enough to put up a solid run against Houston, at No. 17 Texas Tech, Fresno State and at San Diego State. The Lobos need to get the offense on track with Godspeed to face the mounting challenges ahead, most especially with a top-notch Houston squad coming to town.
“Houston is a team, with Frank Anderson as pitching coach,” says Birmingham, “that will be in the College World Series at some point in the next couple of years.”