A depressing era is ending. It spanned eight years, years of mostly mediocre and sometimes really bad baseball. Tim Chambers finally has put an end to it.
Four years ago, when Chambers landed his dream job as UNLV’s coach, this was his vision.
The Rebels were playing for the Mountain West tournament championship Saturday night at Wilson Stadium, and the Rebels rarely play for conference championships in any sport. So, win or lose, this is significant progress.
Chambers once pitched this line to recruits: “When you guys are juniors, you’re going to change the program.”
It was not a lie from a car salesman. Those guys are juniors now, guys like catcher Erik VanMeetren, third baseman T.J. White and starting pitchers Erick Fedde and John Richy.
The program has changed in several positive ways. UNLV, the conference co-champion in the regular season and the No. 1 seed in this tournament, is headed to the NCAA regionals, win or lose today.
San Diego State ousted UNR in 10 innings and emerged from the losers’ bracket to crash the Rebels’ party plans Saturday. The Aztecs rolled to a 9-1 victory, setting up a winner-take-all title game at 1 p.m. today.
The truth is the Rebels are lucky to still be alive, staging a comeback against long odds just before midnight Friday.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. Unbelievable,” Chambers said. “We’ve got one out and nobody on against one of the best closers in America.”
But Michael Cederoth, the Aztecs’ version of Mariano Rivera, blew up in improbable fashion. He surrendered a 4-1 lead in the eighth inning, serving up a three-run homer to Edgar Montes. In the ninth, White lined a double off Cederoth to score Matt McCallister and finish off the Rebels’ 5-4 victory.
Dick Calvert, UNLV’s longtime public address announcer and baseball scorekeeper, called the game for ESPN Radio. “The Rebels pulled off a miracle,” Calvert said.
It was not reminiscent of February 1980, when Al Michaels shouted, “Do you believe in miracles” as the U.S. hockey team upset the Soviet Union. But it felt miraculous to Calvert, Chambers and most everyone who suffered through the Rebels’ baseball depression.
“The second-biggest moment of my career,” Chambers said.
His top moment was coaching the College of Southern Nevada to the Junior College World Series championship in 2003.
In the spring of 2010, before he landed the UNLV job, Chambers coached CSN back to the World Series. That team was led by Bryce Harper, the No. 1 pick in the major league draft.
Chambers’ local ties always made him a logical fit for the Rebels. One of the first locals he recruited was White, a star at Bishop Gorman and the son of longtime Las Vegas oddsmaker Kenny White. Fedde, a 6-foot-4-inch right-hander, was recruited out Las Vegas High.
“I told them we’re going to be (expletive) for two years, and by the third year we’re going to be really good,” Chambers said.
This year, the Rebels are really good, 35-22 with a Ratings Percentage Index in the nation’s top 30.
Still, a couple of storm clouds are shadowing UNLV’s postseason and summer.
Fedde, projected as a first-round pick, tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow last month and needs Tommy John surgery. Without their ace, the Rebels’ run in the NCAA regionals might be brief. A pitcher of Fedde’s quality is nearly impossible to replace.
And then there is Chambers’ contract status. In April, he politely declined a five-year extension offered by UNLV athletic director Tina Kunzer-Murphy because it did not include a raise on his $110,000 salary.
Chambers is the fifth-highest paid baseball coach in the Mountain West. San Diego State’s Tony Gwynn, who is absent this week while dealing with cancer treatments, is the top-paid coach. Still, even the softball coach at New Mexico makes $125,000 a year.
By playing contract hardball, Chambers was gambling on himself and his team. He was betting that UNLV would win a conference championship and then a raise would be in the cards.
Win or lose today, the fact the top-seeded Rebels are playing for a conference title — which would be their first since 2005 — seems like some kind of miracle.
But it was Chambers’ vision — a realistic one — all along.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Matt Youmans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM). Follow him on Twitter @mattyoumans247.