Las Vegas Sun file
Tuesday, March 12, 2013 | 2 a.m.
When the UNLV baseball team finished five games under .500 last season, it was the first time since the late 1980s that coach Tim Chambers posted a nonwinning record. That season, he was coaching local power Bishop Gorman High’s junior varsity team, which finished 9-9.
The third-year UNLV coach takes most of the blame for the struggles last year.
He was battling chronic back pain so severe it changed his coaching style for the worse. Known for his high energy, Chambers wasn’t fully able to do some of the basics of the job — throwing batting practice, hitting ground balls and even standing to coach during games.
“Part of it was my fault because I was injured,” Chambers said. “I couldn’t do the things most people are used to seeing me do as far as being energetic and moving around and screaming and hollering. I have probably hollered and screamed and gotten on my guys more this year than the last two years, and we are finally winning.
“Before, I had to sit on a bench. When the coach is sitting on the bench, how do you expect the players to have energy?”
An October surgery changed everything. He was hospitalized for four days and spent 20 more in bed resting at home after having four screws and three rods inserted in his back and undergoing a spinal fusion. He was supposed to be out for six to eight months but was cleared to return to full activity in 15 weeks.
Now, it is back to normal — for the coach and the team.
The Rebels (13-3) are one of the hottest teams in college baseball, sweeping a three-game series at No. 9 Stanford over the weekend, extending their winning streak to nine games. Monday, they cracked the national rankings for the first time since the 2003 season, entering the Baseball America poll at No. 21.
That’s what happens when you beat a Stanford team pegged by several to reach the College World Series, breaking the Cardinal's 10-game winning streak and handing them a home sweep for the first time since 2009. UNLV’s winning streak is its longest since 2000.
The weekend sweep produced several highlights, especially on Friday when the Rebels beat Cardinal ace Mark Appel, 3-2. Despite UNLV batters striking out 15 times against Appel, a top-10 overall pick last June by the Pittsburgh Pirates who returned to Stanford for his senior season after turning down millions in bonus money, the Rebels found a way to win.
If you are looking for a signature win of the season, or Chambers’ three-year tenure at UNLV, that was it. Appel was as good as advertised, but UNLV still scratched out a victory.
“We faced Roger Clemens,” the coach said of Appel. “We certainly aren’t going to be afraid of anyone the rest of the way.”
Saturday, UNLV was victorious 12-2 with sophomore Erik VanMeetren and senior Mark Shannon each having three hits, and VanMeetren scoring three runs and knocking in two more. Sunday, pitcher John Richy threw a complete game two-hitter in a 5-1 victory, and Joey Swanner’s two-run single highlighted a four-run seventh inning as the Rebels broke a 1-all tie.
Not one time after each victory against Stanford — all of which were considered upsets — did the Rebels’ players storm the mound in celebration or overly rejoice in the clubhouse following the game.
“We expected to win. We come into every game expecting to win,” said Shannon, the Rebels’ senior outfielder, who is batting .379 with 11 RBIs and has started all 16 games. “That is our mentality. The fact we didn’t (storm the mound) just proves our point. We just took it like any other game.”
The streak and national exposure is what Chambers long envisioned for the program since he was hired in 2010. Before UNLV, Chambers coached the College of Southern Nevada to a pair of Junior College World Series appearances and the 2003 national title.
Yet, this year’s UNLV team might be one of his best coaching jobs. The Rebels were picked in the preseason to finish fifth out of six Mountain West Conference teams, but now they are the league’s lone ranked team in the Baseball America poll.
And, according to their coach, they are just getting started.
“They expect to win every time we go out,” Chambers said. “That is half the battle. You see it in all kinds of sports — one game a team shows up and they have all kind of effort and energy. The next time they show up, they don’t have as much, and you waste your time motivating instead of teaching.
“We told (our players) at the first meeting: Effort and energy in non-negotiable. We are going to do it every single game and every single practice. Our guys have done just that. They play fast and hard.”
UNLV hasn’t hit a home run this season, instead playing the small ball of stealing bases, laying down a bunt and the occasional hit-and-run play. Slugger Brandon Bayardi, a preseason all-league pick who led UNLV in home runs in each of the past three years, has impressed the coach with his approach at the plate. He’s not always looking to clear the fences, making the Rebels a better team because of his versatility.
UNLV lost closer Zack Hartman last week for the season with an elbow injury, but that hasn’t slowed down their pitchers. Most of the 12-man pitching staff have had solid performances this year, including Friday night starter Erick Fedde, who is 3-0 with a 2.25 earned run average and 22 strikeouts in 24 innings pitched. Freshman Kenny Oakley pitched three scoreless innings Saturday at Stanford and is 2-0 on the season, Buddy Borden has a 0.68 ERA in 28 innings pitched, and Brady Zuniga has 10 strikeouts in eight innings with a pair of saves.
“We certainly didn’t expect to sweep (Stanford),” Chambers said. “But I feel like we can compete with anybody because we can pitch. If you can pitch, you will be in a lot of games.”
UNLV’s 13 wins are half of the amount they won last year. If the winning continues, they will be in position to qualify for an NCAA Regional for the first time since 2005.
“Everybody just meshed together. The chemistry on this team is amazing,” Shannon said. “If one guy doesn’t come through in the clutch, another guy will pick him up. It doesn’t matter who it is.”