Friday, May 30, 2014 | 2 a.m.
When UNLV baseball players talked to media before the season, it was clear that anything short of a regional appearance would be a disappointment. Of course, now that the Rebels are there, they have a little more in mind.
After winning the Mountain West regular season title, the Rebels were selected for a regional in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005. They begin the double elimination pool play at 2 p.m. today against UC Irvine in Corvallis, Ore.
Oregon State takes on North Dakota State in the other game. If the Beavers and Rebels both win, UNLV would play the No. 1 overall seed in this tournament on Saturday.
Manager Tim Chambers’ expectations were right there with his players’ this season. Now they’re all working together to see if they can take it a step further and get to the super regionals. Here are five keys for making that happen:
1. The offense must wake up
For the season, UNLV scored the third-most runs in the Mountain West, averaging 5.9 per game. Over the past month, however, that average was down to 4.5 as the Rebels struggled to a 7-8 finish. They scored three runs or fewer in eight of those games.
Put simply, the Rebels have a scoring problem. Their offensive numbers for the season are very good pretty much across the board, but they’ve almost all fallen off as injuries and a difficult schedule have taken their toll.
UNLV is going to have to produce much closer to its season total than the past month’s average to have any chance of advancing.
2. Filling in for Fedde
The Rebels’ season outlook changed May 10 when Erick Fedde, the team’s ace and a projected first-round pick in a couple of weeks, went down with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow. He was shut down for the season, and the effect on his draft stock is uncertain.
There’s no replacement for Fedde, but how close the Rebels are able to get will go a long way in determining how long they keep playing.
Junior John Richy is very good and worked great as a 1-2 pairing with Fedde. Now Richy is No. 1 and the No. 2 spot is up for grabs, with recent performances, matchups and Chambers’ gut determining who will get the call.
On Monday, Chambers hinted that closer Brayden Torres could get a start. Otherwise, the job would go to Bryan Bonnell with Kenny Oakley also available.
All of those guys have pitched well this season — UNLV easily leads the league with a 3.19 team ERA — so they’re capable. At least one of them is likely going to need to have the best game of his season to help UNLV survive.
3. Avoid any (more) injuries
The Rebels’ comeback attempt in Sunday’s Mountain West tournament final against San Diego State was made more dramatic by the fact that it was T.J. White starting off the inning with a single up the middle.
White, a .327 hitter this season, was UNLV’s best offensive player through the first three games of the tournament. Then he broke a small bone in his wrist Saturday and missed most of Sunday’s game, becoming just the latest Rebel to miss important innings.
Obviously this one’s mostly out of their hands, but the Rebels can’t afford for anyone else to get hurt or for old injuries to resurface. White is expected to be OK to play. And if it becomes too painful or gets worse? That’s a huge hole in the lineup and another example of injuries limiting this team’s potential.
4. Make the smart plays in the field
Hit the cutoff man and know when it’s more valuable to prevent a runner from advancing than trying to gun down someone who easily beats the throw home. Those are two things the Rebels struggled with in the tournament, and it cost them runs.
UNLV isn’t going to hold all these teams scoreless, so limiting the damage should be the focus. Maybe giving up a few one-run innings will send the Rebels packing, but that at least gives their offense a chance.
The way UNLV has been hitting, a few crooked-numbered innings could be a deathblow. Being smart and efficient in the field can help avoid those blowups.
5. Learn from the experience
The idea for UNLV baseball is that these trips will become a common occurrence. No matter what happens this year, it will be good to get the experience. Ideally, it will teach the coaches and returning players more about what it takes to get back to this point.
Even if they were healthy, it would be difficult for the Rebels to advance from this region, but injuries likely lowered their ceiling this year. So using this to build for the future could be just as important as trying to make something happen right now.