It looks great on the schedule.
At Tennessee for three games.
At Nebraska for three.
At Arkansas for two.
At Clemson for a three-day tournament.
This is how Tim Chambers envisioned it when he was handed the job of returning UNLV’s baseball program to the NCAA Regionals and a relative status nationally.
This is what he sold.
“We have recruited on the premise that we will play anyone anywhere any time,” Chambers said. “We want to play the top teams. We can’t just show up and expect to win. There are no easy slots anymore. I don’t think it will take 37 wins this year to make (a regional), but we have some ground to make up from last week.
“That team isn’t good enough to sweep us and yet it did, and that’s on us. We just didn’t have enough offense to win those kinds of games there.”
He was speaking of Tennessee, which welcomed the Rebels for a three-game set and promptly sent them home with losses of 8-7, 5-4 and 4-2. Two were walk-off victories, and the oh-for-Knoxville weekend by UNLV bounced it from a national ranking of No. 29 to no ranking and this reality: Playing teams from a major conference is good; losing to them doesn’t help much of anything.
Baseball is much like basketball in that the Ratings Percentage Index is a major tool used by those who select at-large teams for the NCAA bracket. Also, the baseball RPI last year began rewarding even more points for road wins and subtracting even more for home losses.
It was a needed adjustment made when data showed that Division I home teams win 62 percent of the time and that some schools were playing 35 to 40 of their allowable 56 games on their field. In this way, it’s not all that different from basketball. Major programs don’t feel a need to travel much, knowing a decent record and the strength of their conference should lead to NCAA berths.
“When we first got here, schedules sometimes are made for two to three years, so there isn’t much you can do about that,” said Chambers, in his fourth season at UNLV. “We opened our first season 17-3 and got a false sense of how good we really were.”
He believes they can be much better than last season, when the Rebels went 37-20 and, despite posting their best record since 2004, failed to make the NCAAs for the eighth straight year. He also knows that when the time comes this season to play at Nebraska and Arkansas and Clemson, UNLV needs to take advantage of those RPI points for road wins.
Chambers is sure his team will be better prepared than it was in Knoxville, where injuries to two of the team’s best hitters and a travel odyssey from Las Vegas to Lindsey Nelson Stadium that was missing only Steve Martin and John Candy never allowed UNLV to get completely on track.
The 12-hour voyage included a stopover in San Antonio, a 3½-hour bus ride upon landing in Tennessee and the worst storm Chambers said he has ever witnessed. He also said he had never traveled that far east, so I’m thinking while it might have been some tough weather, it probably wasn’t anything that warranted a name like Sandy or Carol or Edna.
“It was completely disappointing that we lost all three games,” UNLV ace pitcher Erick Fedde said. “We can’t be happy with just going there and playing them. We’re definitely past that stage.
“We just didn’t play well. But I do think that when we play those types of teams (later in the season), we will have a little more fire to us. We can play with anyone in the country, and I think everyone on our team believes that. We expect to win every series, if not sweep it. Playing (at Tennessee) was a great experience — the stadium was beautiful, the fans were awesome.
“Just not happy with the results.”
UNLV was happy Saturday, when it swept a Mountain West doubleheader from visiting Air Force by scores of 6-1 and 13-3. The series concludes with today’s 1:05 p.m. start.
They are not RPI-building wins by any means, but they’re also not games UNLV can afford to lose focus and drop. The NCAA Regionals begin May 30, and Chambers is confident his team will be playing somewhere.
It’s a long road yet. The season just began.
But already, UNLV has some evidence about what it takes to reach the NCAAs.
“We have to win some of our (nonconference) games or we won’t get there,” Chambers said. “Lesson learned (at Tennessee). About travel and preparation and time change. Everything. We will do some things different when we go to Nebraska (March 28 to 30) and then Arkansas and Clemson.”
He knows what needs to change most: the outcome.
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.