The conversation between the head coach (Tim Chambers) and a Sacramento (Calif.) City College transfer (Pat Armstrong) went something like this:
You can’t play baseball at this level. You might get 10 at-bats during the season. We are only taking you so that you can look after your little brother. We want you to shadow him, lend him advice, make sure he does things the right way and takes advantage of his immense talent.
Oh, yeah. Another thing.
“I’m pretty sure he waited until after we scrimmaged Cal State Fullerton (in the fall) to throw all that at me,” Armstrong said. “I knew I was coming here to baby-sit Joey, or at least make sure he didn’t get into any trouble. He’s a great kid and is just now realizing how good he can be, but he can be a little wild.
“But what (Chambers) said to me was good motivation. I definitely proved him wrong.”
Today UNLV has a program on the rise in the Mountain West and across the national landscape, one that at no time during the previous three seasons since Chambers was named coach has owned the sort of talent and promise as the one which opens its season against visiting Central Michigan on Friday night.
There are road trips scheduled to places like Tennessee and Nebraska and Arkansas and Clemson.
The face of this Rebels program: the baby sitter of a first baseman who isn’t so fat any more.
Armstrong went home for the semester break in 2012 and returned with a new physique and mindset, having reduced his body fat from 21 percent then to 9 today. He was once a flabby 230 pounds. Now, he is a solid 215.
He started 46 games as a junior last season and hit .373 with a team-best slugging percentage of .596, good for all-conference honors. He is a main reason why Chambers insists he has never had a team like the current one, never had one work as hard, that held itself so accountable, that made his job so easy on a daily basis.
“I knew I was way out of shape,” Armstrong said. “But when the head coach says it to your face, it really hits home. Work out twice a day. Change my diet. Get a lot more balanced in what I ate. I knew what I needed to do.
“I want to say that I wasn’t surprised at my numbers last year but I can’t. I definitely was. It was exciting, but as I got in the lineup every day, I knew I should be there and that I had earned it. Looking back, had you told me I would play like that, I would have said you were crazy.
“Now, I’ve set the bar high. I have those kind of expectations. Most importantly, I want us to win.”
His brother is Joey Armstrong, a sophomore outfielder who started all 57 games at third base last season, hitting .324 with 33 RBI and 10 steals. If older brother Pat is the face of the program, little brother Joey is the most athletic and promising position player in it. His game has star written all over it. He can and has played pretty much everywhere on a field.
But he also understands and embraces the role Pat plays, one that not only has helped him stay in line and focus on baseball but that defines the sort of team Chambers wants.
It would be easy for others to follow Joey. His talent is obvious.
It’s better when a team’s true leader isn’t as blessed.
“I knew Patrick would be a huge part of this team,” Joey said. “I knew it would be more about the both of us looking out for each other, to make each other better. I’m a little more outgoing than he is, but I also know that when he sets his mind to something, it’s going to be a positive outcome.
“This program needs to be defined by someone like Pat. It’s awesome to see. We all look up to him. He takes care of his business. He is the perfect model for UNLV baseball. He came from nowhere and has proved a lot of people wrong. I can’t say enough good things about him.”
Chambers can’t stop talking about this team’s defense and pitching, about its mental toughness, about its potential, about how it never, ever stops working. He told his players to wear shorts for practices this week, afraid they were risking injury with so many dives in the infield and outfield.
They just go, go, go, go.
Pat Armstrong is the snapshot of such effort.
He’s the top returning hitter in the Mountain West.
He turned out to be one hell of a baby sitter.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at email@example.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.