Despite uphill battle, NMSU baseball remains undaunted heading into WAC Tournament
Mike Kirby isn’t sure who, specifically, but one New Mexico State baseball player wasn’t surprised when the team bus broke down somewhere on the side of I-10 between Las Cruces, N.M. and Mesa, Ariz. on the way to the Western Athletic Conference Tournament Monday afternoon.
They were even less surprised when the bus broke down a second time later that day.
“That’s odd! That’s a shocker!” NMSU’s head coach heard one player yell from the back of the bus, laughing.
In some ways, being stranded on the side of the highway for roughly two total hours in the blistering heat was the perfect metaphor for an NMSU season in which it seemed nearly everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The Aggies lost seven of their first nine WAC games and didn’t win a conference series until late April and weren’t aided by the injury bug. Junior right hander Rorik Maltrud, the Friday-night starting pitcher, has pitched 30 innings this year and did not make the trip to the conference tournament. Sophomore left hander Sammy Natera, Kirby’s projected Saturday starter before the season began, has appeared in seven games this season. The team even had another bus break down earlier in the season traveling to a midweek game against Arizona.
NMSU narrowly snuck into the WAC Tournament by winning its final regular-season series against Utah Valley, which included a seven-run ninth-inning comeback to stun the Wolverines in the first game of the series.But by scraping into the conference tournament, the Aggies have given themselves a chance. And in a season where lucky breaks have been few and far between, that’s all Kirby can ask for.
NMSU (20-32, 10-20), the fourth and final seed in the West Division, will take on Southwest Division No. 1 seed Sam Houston State (31-23, 21-9) Wednesday at 1 p.m. MDT at Hohokam Stadium in Mesa in the Aggies’ first contest of the double-elimination conference tournament. The winner will advance to play the winner of UT Rio Grande Valley and Sacramento State, while the loser will advance to play the loser of that same contest.
“Once you get into tournament play, this is baseball, and anyone can beat anyone on any day. It doesn’t really matter,” Kirby said. “It’s about who’s executing better pitches, who’s running better at-bats and who’s making better plays on defense.”
Knocking off four opponents in four days won’t be an easy feat for a team which hasn’t amassed more than two straight wins since conference play began, but the Aggies’ goals are still in front of them. NMSU has lost hopes of receiving an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament and failed to win the regular-season conference championship, but it can advance to its first NCAA Tournament since 2018 by winning the conference tournament and receiving the WAC’s automatic bid.
Kirby said the team’s goals and mentality haven’t changed throughout the season, even when things went south.
“You want to win the conference. If you don’t, you want to make sure you’re in the conference tournament so you can tee it up with everybody and see if you’re the last one standing,” Kirby said. “We’re a little banged up. We’re down a few players. But it’s the game of baseball, so I don’t know what’s going to happen. I just know that we’re going to have fun getting after it, for sure.”
Kirby would not commit to a set pitching rotation for the tournament or tip his hat at who he may start in NMSU’s two contests Wednesday and Thursday. He said he plans to play things by ear depending on score, urgency and pitch count, among other things. But his pitching staff, which does not have an available pitcher with an ERA under 4.5, will have its hands full with a Sam Houston State team which has scored the second-most runs in the conference and is batting over .300 as a team.
The Bearkats have two wins over ranked opponents, including one over then-No. 4 Oklahoma State in late February. They also took a four-game series over Nebraska to start the season. SHSU has scored at least five runs in five of their last six conference games.
Kirby said that doesn’t matter. His team remains undaunted.
“You would think that we’re on a 25-game win streak. My guys like to have fun,” Kirby said, acknowledging his team has dropped eight of its last 10 contests. “It’s not an easy game. Sometimes things don’t go your way. It’s a lot like life. It’s not very fair sometimes. You have to overcome some adversities and get to the next pitch or wake up and get to the next day and have a better day. And when you can roll in with that attitude, it’s pretty much a win-win.”
And Wednesday afternoon, the Aggies will roll up to Hohokam Stadium, lace up their cleats and give themselves a chance.