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UNM baseball: Slaten ready to show why he?s No. 1 starter

February 23, 2019 GMT

The University of New Mexico baseball team needs Justin Slaten to be tone-setter this season.

Slaten, a 6-foot-4 junior right-hander with a big-time arm, is doing everything in his power to make an imposing first impression as the Lobos’ Friday starter. He’s scheduled to be on the mound today when UNM (2-2) opens a four-game series against Niagara at Santa Ana Star Field.

Step one for Slaten was putting a disappointing 2018 season behind him. The Longview, Texas, native never found a consistent rhythm as the Lobos’ No. 1 starter in 2018. He racked up 62 strikeouts in 66 innings but finished with a 2-9 record and an unsightly 7.02 earned-run average.

Slaten determined his arm was not the problem.

“The biggest thing was the mental side,” he said. “I went and played summer ball in the Northwoods League even though no one asked me to go. I had to get back to trusting my ability as a pitcher.”

Slaten didn’t stop there. During the offseason he worked extensively with new UNM pitching coach Brandon Higelin, fixing mechanical flaws that had caused his command to suffer. Slaten also looked up former Lobo closer (and current Dallas Baptist assistant coach) Victor Sanchez in hopes of adding to his arsenal.

“He showed me the grip he used on his curveball and really worked with me,” Slaten said, “and it’s become a good pitch for me. I almost never threw curveballs last season, so it’s a big addition.”

Early returns on Slaten’s offseason work have been promising. He started UNM’s season-opener last week against defending national champion Oregon State and allowed one hit in five scoreless innings, striking out five. Slaten also walked five, which drove up his pitch count and shortened his outing, but his mixture of mid-90s fastballs, sliders, change-ups and curveballs baffled OSU hitters and turned the heads of scouts at the Surprise (Ariz.) Tournament.

Better still for the Lobos, Slaten set a positive tone for the weekend.

“Justin can do a lot of big things for this team,” Higelin said. “He wants to be a leader and he’s already a guy teammates look to, but the big thing is he really wants to be good. He came in with an open mind about changing some things and we’re already seeing progress. It doesn’t hurt having a 95 (mph) fastball either.”

CHANGING TIMES: Today’s series opener against Niagara (0-3) is scheduled for 4 p.m. and Saturday’s doubleheader will start at noon. Both start times were changed from UNM’s original schedule. Sunday’s finale remains set for noon.