Mike Groll / AP
Friday, Feb. 17, 2017 | 2 a.m.
UNLV baseball has an almost entirely new pitching staff, but you’ll probably recognize the pitching coach when the Rebels take the field tonight for the season opener against Omaha.
Hall of Famer and Las Vegas native Greg Maddux has joined the Rebels’ staff as a volunteer assistant, and he’s got his work cut out, as he's taking the reins of a group that returns fewer than 30 percent of the team’s innings pitched from last season, when UNLV went 24-32 with a 6.00 ERA.
The idea is that Maddux will be able to draw on his decades of surgical experience on the mound and transfer some of that knowledge to the Rebels’ young arms. The four-time Cy Young Award winner did not speak to the press at UNLV’s media day earlier this week, but the consensus among the team was that he has already made an impact.
Junior righthander Alan Strong, the Rebels’ scheduled Friday-night starter, said Maddux’s attention to detail and approach to situational pitching have been particularly helpful.
“He’s awesome,” Strong said. “As a coach, he’s probably the greatest teacher of the game I’ve ever been around, the guy with probably the highest baseball IQ I’ve ever met. All of the guys look up to him.”
Strong will be asked to take the ball as UNLV’s No. 1 starter after going 9-4 with a 3.96 ERA in 127 innings for Grossmont College last year. Few of the Rebels’ other projected starters are accustomed to that kind of workload, so head coach Stan Stolte said he and Maddux plan to be aggressive with their bullpen usage.
Stolte also wants his Rebels to attack at the plate and on the base paths. He believes UNLV has enough positional talent to put pressure on opposing teams and generate runs consistently throughout the lineup.
“We’re going to be aggressive,” Stolte said. “We have some good athletes, offensively, and coach [Kevin] Higgins is going to run a good, aggressive offense. We’re going to do a little bit of everything. We can run and we have some power, so I think we’ll be pretty balanced offensively.”
Junior Payton Squier and sophomore Kyle Isbel are primed for strong seasons at the plate. Squier batted .375 last year with 28 RBIs and a team-high .439 on-base percentage, while Isbel took home Mountain West co-Freshman of the Year honors after hitting .319 with 10 doubles and 28 RBIs.
The Rebels were picked to tie for fifth in the Mountain West preseason poll, but Stolte thinks his guys can outperform expectations.
“Position-wise, we have some good kids coming back, so we feel good about the way we’re going to play defense, and we’re going to hit a little bit,” Stolte said. “Pitching was a major concern going into the fall, but I’m feeling better about it now. Greg’s done a great job with them, and some of the kids have stepped up and I think they’re going to give us a chance to have a decent season.”