It was a quarter of six Sunday, and the roar of the engines still was reverberating between my ears at Las Vegas Motor Speedway when I received a four-word alert that made my head spin some more.
Gentleman, start your engines?
No, that was earlier. These four words came in the heading of an email:
UNLV Baseball Media Availability.
Now, I have seen these advisories during basketball season, and during football season, except when the Rebels lose to somebody like Northern Arizona or Southern Utah, in which case UNLV football rarely is available to the media.
But UNLV baseball? Available to the media? Isn’t UNLV baseball always available to the media? Isn’t UNLV baseball always open, like 7-Eleven or Walmart or Jack in the Box or one of those bail-bond places?
You walk into coach Tim Chambers’ office, you sit down, you talk baseball, or you talk about some new addition that has made Wilson Stadium even more pleasing to the eye, such as the Rebels’ new bullpen down the right-field line. (It keeps the sun off the pitchers, and the pitchers out of Chambers’ hair in the dugout.)
Since when does the media need to be advised about the baseball team’s availability?
Since the baseball team capped a three-game sweep Sunday over mighty Stanford of the equally mighty Pac-12.
The Cardinal won back-to-back College World Series crowns in 1987 and 1988; altogether, Stanford has been to the CWS 16 times, which — if my math is correct — is 16 times more than UNLV has been to the CWS.
The Stanford name has appeared on 30 NCAA Tournament brackets, on 20 Pac-8, 10 or 12 championship banners, and on the front of the jerseys of the following major league players: Jack McDowell, Mike Mussina, Carlos Quentin, Sam Fuld, Drew Storen, Jed Lowrie, Jeremy Guthrie, Ryan Garko, John Mayberry Jr.
And yet the Rebels beat those guys — well, not those guys, exactly, but the school for which they played — and they beat Stanford not once, not twice, but three times.
The Rebels beat them at their place, a place in Palo Alto, Calif., surrounded by evergreens called Sunken Diamond, where the smell of garlic french fries from the Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant wafts through the stands starting in the second inning or so, or at least it did when I was there for an NCAA Regional a few years ago.
It is this smell, and those big bats and live arms, and the Cardinal’s perennial national ranking, which heading into last weekend was No. 9, which makes Stanford a difficult place to play.
And yet UNLV beat those guys, 3-2 and 12-2 and 5-1, and now the Rebels are to college baseball what the Netherlands and Italy are to the World Baseball Classic. After struggling to a 26-31 record last season, the Rebels are 13-3 and have won nine games in a row, their longest winning streak since 2000.
And now it is they who are ranked, No. 21, in the Baseball America poll released Monday. (Stanford fell from No. 9 to out of the poll altogether.)
On Friday, the Rebels beat Mark Appel, this year’s Stephen Strasburg. Appel was drafted eighth overall by the Pirates after his junior year but decided to stay in school, because if you haven’t checked the list of Nobel Prize winners recently, a Stanford education still is worth something.
Appel struck out 15 Rebels with 98-mph premium gas. But UNLV bunched a couple of timely hits with a few Cardinal sins — a dropped third strike, three errors, all in the second inning — and that proved to be the difference.
Here is the conversation I had Monday with Rebels center fielder Mark Shannon about facing Appel:
“You get any hits?”
“0-for-3 with a walk.”
“He strike you out?”
“He throw hard?”
“Yes. That guy is ridiculous.”
Whereas last year the Rebels were losing ridiculously close games with local kids, this year they are winning with them: 17 of the 29 names on the roster are homegrowns from Las Vegas, North Las Vegas, Henderson and Boulder City. This means when the Rebels play at home, there even are spectators in the stands, plus the usual lunatics from the 335 Club perched in their right-field sky box.
Chambers, looking fit and spry and tanned after undergoing delicate back surgery during the winter, said the biggest difference between this team and last year’s is the Rebels’ fire and pace. And that he’s not coaching his third season from a stool.
“In college baseball, it’s a waste of time to teach energy and effort but you do anyway,” he said. “When you don’t have to spend time on that, you can spend time on getting better.
“We went out on Day One talking about energy and effort, and then we said we’re not going to talk about it the rest of the year. They’ve taken to our style of offense better than any team I’ve coached.”
Bunt and run, hit and run, score a run. If you get a dropped third strike, make it hurt. Run onto the field, run off the field. On yeah, and this is still important: Have your pitchers throw strikes.
On Sunday, John Richy, normally one of UNLV’s Tuesday/spot starters, pitched a complete game two-hitter at the Sunken Diamond in Palo Alto, walking none, striking out four.
If Richy keeps hitting his spots, he, too, might be added to the baseball availability list.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski