Knudson: Headed for a Showdown – Again
By Mark Knudson, The Mtn. InsiderMay 3, 2012
Let’s be honest. It hasn’t been the best year for Mountain West baseball. Part of that is the presence of only five teams. But neither of the teams that left the Conference was all that great at baseball, anyway. At the moment, BYU is 18-18 with an RPI of 131. They look good compared to Utah at 12-30 (in the tough Pac 12) with an RPI of 195.
No, the bigger issue is that Conference heavyweight TCU suffered big losses in personnel after last season and the Horned Frogs’ newbies were slow getting out of the gate. Meanwhile, New Mexico, which last year stunned college baseball by winning the MW tournament after a dreadful regular season, also got off to a slow start in the non-conference portion of the schedule. UNLV has been somewhat of a disappointment while San Diego State just treads water. Air Force is improved, but injuries have limited what the Falcons can do this season while Mike Kazlausky rebuilds.
All that disappointment goes out the window this weekend, however, when the front-running Lobos travel to Fort Worth to face the surging Horned Frogs in a three-game set that will help determine the top seed in the Conference tourney.
New Mexico presently sits on top of the league standings with a 12-3 Conference record (26-19 overall) while TCU is just a game behind at 11-4 (27-15). UNM took two of the three games played in Albuquerque earlier in the season. You don’t have to be a math major to figure out that if TCU takes two of three, they will be deadlocked at the top and we could be looking at a tie-breaker scenario to determine that top seed.
Most years, it would be predictable for TCU to get those two wins. They have been a juggernaut in the regular season for the past one-half dozen years, taking home the regular season crown every season. The Lobos, on the other hand, have been better in tournament play. This year, things could be different. TCU hasn’t dominated the regular season. Actually, it’s New Mexico that has won eight straight weekend series behind stellar pitching. The Friday and Saturday matchups, which would normally feature standout arms on the hill wearing purple, will feature the strong arms of UNM’s Austin House (5-3, 2.74 ERA) and Gera Sanchez (6-1, 1.63 ERA) facing TCU standouts Andrew Mitchell (4-2, 3.56 ERA) and Preston Morrison (6-0, 1.64 ERA). Even though UNM’s calling card remains its potent offense, the Lobos will have no problem matching TCU pitch-for-pitch; New Mexico’s team ERA is the lowest the program has posted in 35 years.
Sunday could be more of what we’ve come to expect. Stefan Crichton (5-1. 3.22 ERA) gives TCU a decided edge in the starting pitching department that day against UNM’s Josh Walker (6-2, 4.08 ERA).
However, on the offensive side, UNM owns a distinct advantage of their own. Catcher Mitchell Garver was just named the MW Player of the Week for the third time in six weeks. He’s only hitting .380, good enough for second on his own team behind All-World third baseman DJ Peterson, who’s scalding the ball at a .437 clip, ranking him third in the nation. UNM has seven players hitting over .300.
Meanwhile, TCU can manufacture runs with the best of them and will need to. The Frogs are last in the MW in batting average at .251 and have two regulars hitting below .200. The manufacturing plant will have to work overtime this weekend to keep up with the Lobos.
TCU is 13-2 in their last 15 games after a dramatic midweek walk-off win over Oklahoma. New Mexico has won 10 of their last 12, including three of four against Texas Tech.
So what happens if TCU wins two of three and everything is all locked up? Then those darn tiebreakers get involved. If San Diego State holds on to third place in the Conference standings (and that’s a good bet) then the series records of both TCU and UNM vs. SDSU come into play. The Lobos already took five of six against SDSU. TCU has won two of three and hosts SDSU the final weekend. They may need to sweep that series to force another tiebreaker. It could get very interesting.
Earlier in the season, it was a foregone conclusion that the MW would send only its tournament winner to the NCAA Tournament. That may no longer be the case. TCU has improved their RPI to 36 and one prominent former college head coach told me that they would get an at-large bid “on reputation alone” if they don’t win the MW tournament. New Mexico is now in Others Receiving Votes in the latest polls, meaning they’re attracting the right kind of interest, too.
Maybe this isn’t such a disappointing baseball season after all.
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