The temptation with any struggling player is to give him a rest and chance to clear his head.
But sitting that player also could send the wrong message, and UNLV baseball coach Tim Chambers knew Patrick Armstrong needed all the support he could get when he began the season collecting more strikeouts than hits.
“When they’re struggling mentally and you bench them ... now you’re telling them, ‘I don’t think you can get going,’ ” Chambers said. “Confidence is a huge issue in this game, especially. It’s a hard, hard game to play.”
Chambers’ faith in his senior first baseman paid off.
Armstrong not only came back strong but also put himself in contention for Mountain West Player of the Year, which will be announced this morning. He also was a key part in leading the Rebels to the No. 1 seed for the conference tournament, which begins today at Wilson Stadium.
The Rebels (33-21) don’t play until 7 p.m. Thursday, having earned a first-day bye as one of the league’s top two seeds. They are 26th in the Ratings Index Percentage rankings and, according to Baseball America, are “safely in” their first NCAA regional since 2005.
Armstrong, a native of Woodbridge, Calif., enters the Mountain West tournament batting .317 with team highs of seven home runs and 43 RBIs. Those are far different numbers than what he produced in the first seven games, when he went 3-for-29 with two RBIs and seven strikeouts.
“It was definitely frustrating those first couple of weekends against Central Michigan here and at Tennessee knowing that I was the guy that needed to produce in the cleanup spot,” Armstrong said. “In order for us to win, I had to drive in runs, and it was frustrating knowing that I needed to be that guy and I wasn’t filling that role. But I had confidence, and our coaches had confidence, that I was going to come out of it. I kept working till it finally clicked.”
Last season gave Armstrong and his team confidence he could produce. He hit a team-leading .373 with seven homers and 40 RBIs.
Those numbers also produced expectations, from coaches to teammates to Armstrong himself.
“Once I relaxed and realized that I just had to play my game, that’s when things started to go better,” he said. “Once you get a couple of hits to fall, you realize, OK, it’s not all bad. It helped that we were winning. I’m not huge on personal stats, and as long as we win, I’m happy. We were doing that, so (the average) slowly went up.”
Chambers said Armstrong made an adjustment with his elbow that helped to end the slump.
The mental side was just as important, and that’s why Chambers knew Armstrong had built up enough equity to keep him on the field.
“We kept running him out there in the four-hole, and he was doing nothing,” Chambers said. “So I think he realized that, ‘Hey, they feel like I earned it last year, and they’re going to keep running me out there. At some point, it’ll click.’ And we kept running him out there.”
Now Armstrong could wind up as the conference’s Player of the Year. One of his competitors is UNR’s Austin Byler, who is batting .335 with 45 RBIs and hit his league-leading 14th homer Friday against the Rebels.
Armstrong also homered in that game.
“I’ve become pretty good friends with him,” Armstrong said. “I was joking I wasn’t going to let him get any further ahead of me.
“But I can’t worry about that stuff. All I’m really worried about is winning games, and I know that Skip’s (Chambers) going to fight for me when it comes to voting. So I’m just worried about playing, and the rest will take care of itself.”
■ INJURY UPDATES — Outfielders Joey Armstrong (right thumb) and Joey Swanner (left hamstring) might not be available Thursday. Swanner is expected back at some point this week, but Joey Armstrong’s status is more uncertain.
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at email@example.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.