A different kind of MW baseball season has now begun. It's out with the old - in the form of the dynasty that was TCU baseball, and in with the new, in the form of the 2008 College World Series Champion Fresno State Bulldogs who arrive for the 2013 season. And while the Bulldogs bring some pedigree with them to their new conference, they don't show up and instantly become the new sheriff in town. The reigning King of this Hill remains Ray Birmingham's New Mexico Lobos. The question that will be answered this season is how comfortably these Lobos will wear the crown as opposed to fighting to capture it in the first place.
For the first time since 2006, TCU does not enter the season as the pre-season favorite in the Mountain West. Now that they've move to the Big 12, the team that unseated the Frogs last season - and likely would have been this year's pre-season favorite even if TCU was still around - is New Mexico, ranked in the Top 25 at the start of the year for the first time ever.
There's ample reason for excitement around Lobo baseball, even after they dropped two of three to Oklahoma State to start the season. Birmingham returns Co-MW Players of the Year in Mitchell Garver and DJ Peterson (who won the league's Triple Crown last season.) Both are on national Player of the Year watch lists for this season. The Lobos also return All-Conference performers Alex Allbritton (SS), Josh Melendez (OF) and Josh Walker (P). They appear loaded and ready to pick up where they left off last season.
So what will Birmingham, a master of motivation and preparation, do now that he can't play the underdog card anymore? Ever since he took the UNM job in 2008, he's been able to plaster "TCU Horned Frogs, MW Champs" on his locker room wall and point to it when he needed to grab his team's attention. Ray's Lobos have always had the evil empire in Fort Worth to take aim at, the team they both loathed and wanted to be like at the same time. Now that the plaque on the wall notes that UNM is the defending champs, Ray needed a new ploy.
He didn't take long to ID one. A slightly doctored photo made the rounds on Twitter a couple weeks ago, one that featured the Lobos midfield dog pile after they won the 2011 MW tournament, taking place with the huge TD Ameritrade Park shot as the background. The pic was tweaked to create the illusion that the celebration had - or more directly, WILL - take place in Omaha next time around.
Omaha - sight of the College World Series - is Birmingham's one and only goal for his team. Conference titles are great. UNM has now won two in a row. But trips to the CWS are what make a program elite, and elite is all that Birmingham will settle for.
Come conference time, the Lobos will have to contend with a talented San Diego State squad that will have Head Coach Tony Gwynn for the full season, and has 11 experience arms on the staff to make things tough on opponents. Michael Cederoth, who won his first start against nationally-ranked University of San Diego on Friday, has the makings of the next Aztec superstar pitcher. Nevada - last season's WAC champs - are also entering the conference. Fresno State will be tough again, and UNLV will be much improved. No one can sleep on Air Force, as several teams learned last season. The Falcons made a big leap and nearly snuck into the conference tourney. If opening weekend is a true indicator, the MW race could be a tight one. The Aztecs swept the three-game series from No. 25 USD, while UNLV took their opening series from SEC power Tennessee.
Non-conference scheduling - sometimes OVER scheduling - has always been a source of pride for Birmingham. He'd take his team anywhere at any time to play anyone. Two years ago, New Mexico played the toughest schedule in the country, and their regular-season record reflected the anticipated struggles. Then they up and took out TCU to win the conference tourney for the second of three straight trips to the NCAA tournament.
Playing good teams in the non-conference is helps good teams great, so it was no surprise when Birmingham began loading up the schedule. This season he set up a season opening series with Oklahoma State to test his team and his inexperienced pitching staff right out of the gate. A narrow 4-2 defeat (on two unearned runs late in the game) cost them on opening night, and the Pokes pulled out a gut-wrenching, 13-inning, 15-14 win in game two, when UNM blew a 14-6 lead. But the Lobos showed the fight we've come to expect from a Birmingham team in bouncing back to clobber the Cowboys 9-1 in the series finale to take some momentum into the second week's trip to south Texas to face Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Iowa and Oklahoma. Still on the docket are match-ups with Nebraska, Arizona State, UC Riverside and Texas Tech. Anyone, anytime, anywhere.
It's gonna be a fun ride this season.