The NCAA Regional format can be brutal on a college team’s pitching staff.
In a span of four days a team can play up to five games, a tall order for clubs who build their staffs on a three games in three days format during the regular season.
It is precisely that need for multiple effective starting pitchers that looms as the biggest challenge for the New Mexico Lobos.
“All of our starters have to try to go as deep as we can, get five, six, seven innings out of the game because you never know how many games you could play,” said senior right-hander Sam Wolff (7-3, 3.05 ERA). “You could play until that fourth day. It does, it comes down to the bullpen usually between the two teams. Whichever bullpen is more fresh is going to be better off.”
Wolff and junior right-hander Josh Walker (11-0, 3.91) are locked in to start the first two games for UNM (37-20). After that, it’s anyone’s guess.
“I think the goal for our pitching staff this weekend is to throw as many strikes as we can early (in the count),” said Walker, who will start Friday’s 5 p.m. game against Arizona State. “And to try and throw strikes with our offspeed. As hitters, we’ve talked to Coach (Ray) Birmingham about it, he’s a hitting coach so he would know, if you throw strikes with more than one pitch that’s pretty much all you need. After that you locate.”
After Walker and Wolff, it’s anyone’s guess as to who will take the mound for the Lobos.
“We feel like our first two guys match up with anybody’s first two guys,” Birmingham said. “Our third guy is a question mark, obviously. Is the potential here? Yes.”
Walker began the year as the Lobos’ closer, saving seven games, but he has looked sharp in three starts. The Sun Devils (35-20-1) represent the toughest opponent he has faced to date.
“Part of me wants to get up a little more for those, they’re big-name teams,” Walker said. “The bottom line is you have to go out there and battle with your teammates, battle with your brothers.”
Wolff will get the nod Saturday against either host Cal State Fullerton or Columbia.
“I feel great personally (and) I know our pitching staff feels great,” Wolff said. “(Pitching) Coach (Dan) Spencer has done a great job throughout the year as far as limiting everyone with their pitch counts to where everyone feels fresh, everyone’s ready to go.
“In the postseason, tournament time, it’s all hands on deck. We’re going to do whatever it takes as a pitching staff to get it done and throw zeroes on the scoreboard.”
An emerging weapon for UNM has been junior right-hander Jake McCasland (1-1, 5.09, 1 save), who is finally healthy after recovering from offseason elbow surgery. It is unlikely that he will start a game but he could be quite valuable in his ability to go up to three innings in relief.
“We think Jake McCasland is really moving forward but he’s more of a closer, he has to be a reliever, so somebody will have to start that game and give us three or four quality innings,” Birmingham said.
Other candidates to start for the Lobos include a trio of pitchers with issues. Freshman Drew Bridges (3-1, 4.46) has dealt with a “dead arm” of late. Junior A.J. Carman (1-1, 6.05) tends to pitch well for three or four innings but almost always hits a wall by the fifth. Sophomore Alex Estrella (0-1, 6.68, 1 save) could also be an option though he has started just five games this season.
The bullpen has two fairly reliable arms in senior lefty Gabe Aguilar (5-2, 2.55, 3 saves) and senior right-hander Hobie McClain (3-1, 4.44, 1 save). In the condensed regional format they will need help from the likes of freshman Taylor Duree (4.24 in 15 games), junior Jonathan Cuellar (2-1, 5.87, 1 save) and senior Will Mathis (0-4, 8.05).
The opening game between UNM and ASU will be shown online on ESPN3.com. It can also be heard locally on 101.7 FM.