There weren’t two teams in the Western Athletic Conference Baseball Tournament with less to lose.
To say New Mexico State and Abilene Christian’s meeting in the championship round of the WAC Tournament was unlikely would be an understatement. Each snatched the final conference tournament qualifying seed in their respective division, and both finished the regular season with sub-.500 records in league play. Both No. 4 seeds had to go through the top three seeds in their half of the bracket, and ACU had to knock off Grand Canyon twice in less than 24 hours just to qualify for the conference championship game.
Winning the conference title Saturday was the only hope either school had of extending their postseason and advancing to a NCAA Regional with no more than 30 regular-season wins or a RPI ranking in the top 150.
So they left it all on the field.
NMSU beat ACU 7-1 Saturday night to win its first WAC Tournament championship under head coach Mike Kirby and advance to its first NCAA Regional since 2018 behind a desperate, grinding performance. NMSU used four pitchers, including Wednesday and Thursday’s starters, in its fourth game in four days.
But for the Aggies, Saturday’s blue-collar, championship-winning performance epitomized the lunch-pail attitude Kirby has hammered into the program culture since he arrived at NMSU. He regularly refers to his team as the “Los Grinders” instead of the “Los Aggies.”
And this year, there’s been a lot of grinding.
“Life’s not always fair,” Kirby said about the Aggies’ 20-win regular season. “You have to overcome a lot of adversity, and you’re the one who chooses if your glass is half-empty or half-full. These guys, credit to them, they believed in themselves and believed in one another. It was pretty special to come in here and do what we did.”
The Aggies wouldn’t have qualified for the WAC Tournament if California Baptist and Utah Tech, both transitioning from Division II to Division I, were eligible for the conference tournament. The top four teams in each division qualify for the conference tournament under the current WAC Tournament format, and NMSU finished sixth in their division, but earned the No. 4 seed due to Cal Baptist and Utah Tech’s ineligibility.
The Aggies lost nine of their last 11 regular-season games and had the fewest wins of any team to qualify for the conference tournament. NMSU had to win two games against Utah Valley in the final week of the regular season to avoid finishing dead last in the West Division.
But, as Kirby said, things just worked out. And when they got to the WAC Tournament, things kept working out.
“I just think the baseball gods or the man upstairs were rewarding the kids for everything they had gone through,” Kirby said. “I saw it really clearly. And I tried to stay out of the guys’ way and let them do their thing.”
Nolan Funke hit a solo home run in the second inning, then Cal Kilgore singled home a run after an ACU defensive error later in the inning. Funke doubled home his second RBI of the day in the fourth inning, and Preston Godfrey and Cal Villareal singled home two more runs before the game’s midway point. NMSU led 5-0 after the fourth inning before padding the lead with a pair of runs in the sixth.
Villareal was named WAC Tournament MVP after amassing 11 hits in the conference tournament.
ACU had four errors and allowed six earned runs in their second game of the day. The Wildcats beat Grand Canyon less than two hours earlier to advance to the championship game.
“I told (the players) before the game that the team that can relax and get loose and be themselves first will have the best opportunity to win. Nolan gave us that chance when he hit an opposite field home run in a big park,” Kirby said. “It just kind of went from there. When I had a runner at second with a hamstring issue, a ball hopped up the middle that allowed him to score, or a ball just went in between the outfielders that allowed a runner to score. The boys were hooked up on a high level.”
On the mound, the Aggies pieced innings together from two starters running off fumes. Pablo Cortes and Ian Mejia gave up one run in five combined innings after pitching in Wednesday and Thursday’s games, respectively. Brendon Rodriguez also pitched a scoreless inning, and Alex Bustamante shut the door with three shutout innings.
Mejia was credited with the win. Bustamante picked up his eighth save.
NMSU’s pitching staff allowed five total runs in the WAC Tournament after not having a pitcher finish with an ERA under 4.11 in the regular season. They had allowed at least six runs in each of their last four regular-season contests.
“Those guys were executing pitches left and right all tournament. We had a couple of walks tonight, but our first walk (of the tournament) was yesterday (against Sacramento State),” Kirby said. “When you can not give away free bases and give away extra bases on bad plays and bad throws, that keeps you in the game. And as a result, you have a chance to win.”
The Aggies now await Selection Monday, where they will learn their NCAA Regional round destination. They will likely be the second WAC team to make the tournament this season; Grand Canyon is in discussion to receive an at-large bid.
Texas, Texas A&M and TCU are projected to be the geographically closest regional hosts as of May 28. Stanford and Oregon State are also possible regional destinations, should the conference’s automatic qualifier be sent west to a higher national seed. The Aggies’ destination could also be affected in part by whether or not GCU, the regular-season conference champion, receives an at-large bid.
NMSU currently has the second-lowest RPI of any team to qualify for the NCAA Tournament this season. Its 234 RPI ranking is beat out by only Coppin State’s 285 RPI. There are 301 teams in college baseball.
The nothing-to-lose approach won’t change for Kirby and the Aggies.
“We’re going to be the last seed in the tournament, so we’re playing with house money right away,” Kirby said. “And if you can just go out and be yourself and have fun and enjoy the game and enjoy the experience… my team is pretty good. So we’ll see what happens.”