Tuesday, April 15, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Every once in awhile, maybe if he’s all caught up on the DVR and needs some entertainment, UNLV junior catcher Erik VanMeetren will stir the pot.
It’s always a friendly argument, and honestly VanMeetren doesn’t need to do much for the back-and-forth to get started. His pitchers know each other’s stats and how to use them to make a personal argument as the best on the staff.
Erick Fedde, a likely first-round draft pick this June, leads the team in strikeouts and earned run average. John Richy is keeping pace in strikeouts and tied for the lead in complete games with Bryan Bonnell, who has only five walks in a team-leading 69.2 innings.
“It’s almost a competition,” Fedde said. “On Saturday (Richy) wants to show me up and on Sunday (Bonnell) wants to show both of us up.”
That trio, plus midweek starter Kenny Oakley and a stellar bullpen, are a big reason the Rebels have become one of the best college teams west of the Mississippi. UNLV (25-11) is currently ranked No. 20 by Baseball America, which also has the Rebels hosting a regional in the field of 64.
There’s a long way to go before making that a reality, but if it does happen it will likely be because a UNLV pitching staff made up of mostly locals takes them there.
“Our pitchers keep us in every single game,” said UNLV manager Tim Chambers.
For Chambers, this started when he relinquished control of calling pitches from the coaches to VanMeetren. It takes a lot of trust in the college game to hand that responsibility to your catcher, and that’s exactly what Chambers did during the 2013 season.
For VanMeetren, who appreciates his manager’s confidence, going from good to great, as the Rebels are trying to do this season, requires more than just smarts behind the plate.
“Whatever numbers I throw down,” he said, “they’ve got to execute.”
And so far this year, that’s exactly what the Rebels’ pitchers have done.
This was expected of Fedde, a Las Vegas High grad who has a 1.69 ERA and is on the midseason watch list for the Golden Spikes Award, but not necessarily of the others. Richy, who’s from Colorado, has a 2.55 ERA with a 3.6 strikeout/walk ratio as the Saturday starter and Bonnell, a Centennial High grad, has come in on Sundays and been arguably better, with a 1.81 ERA and a 0.91 WHIP.
“We push each other,” Richy said. “We’re competitive in a good way.”
If it were only those three UNLV would still be in good shape, yet the Rebels go at least four deep with Oakley facing stiff competition during midweek games. UNLV’s RPI this season has consistently been near top 10 in the country, and the Coronado High grad has held those nonconference foes to a .196 batting average while maintaining a 2.06 ERA.
Oakley has another chance to impress tonight when the Rebels play one game at Arizona State (19-14). The Sun Devils often host one of those opening regionals, but their struggles this year could open the door for the Rebels.
Oakley’s performances have been good enough to hang in any smack-talking conversation amongst the pitchers. But as much fun as they have in those arguments, everyone acknowledges that it’s Fedde’s dominance that gets things going.
“Friday really sets the tone for the weekend,” said Bonnell.
Added Oakley, “Whatever (Fedde) does, we want to be better than that.”
That’s a lot to ask but the staff’s ability to get even close to that benchmark has made life much easier for the Rebels’ offense. UNLV is 24-6 when it scores at least three runs. And in college baseball, getting to three runs isn’t always too difficult.
The Rebels have just more than a month left in the regular season. All the goals they established before the season involved at least one postseason berth, so there’s no celebrating yet at Earl E. Wilson Stadium.
They’re on the right track a lot of credit goes to the pitchers for keeping them there. Who among that group is the best, though, is up for debate depending on the week or the stat.
Of course, there’s one way to look at it that won’t get an argument from any Rebel.
“We’re all amazing,” Fedde said. “There’s maybe not a better staff in the country this year.”