Looks as if UNLV is out of its hitting slump, and just in time.
The Rebels batted around three times Friday, setting up a chance to not only go for the series sweep against UNR but also to win the Mountain West regular-season baseball title.
With UNLV beating the Wolf Pack 17-9 at Wilson Stadium and Air Force winning 3-1 at New Mexico, the Rebels tied the Lobos for first place in the conference. UNLV, which defeated New Mexico in five of six meetings, owns the tiebreaker.
“It would be huge,” Rebels designated hitter A.J. Hernandez said. “We haven’t won it in a while.”
Not since 2005, to be exact.
Winning the regular-season championship would be a step toward assuring a berth in the NCAA regionals, and if the various projections are to be believed, UNLV already is in. Acting coach Stan Stolte said it would be difficult to argue against the Rebels should they win the title, but didn’t want to make any assumptions, either.
“Being a midmajor, I’ve been through this before many times,” Stolte said. “You never know what’s going on behind closed doors.”
The Rebels (32-21, 19-10 Mountain West) play UNR (28-24, 15-14) at 1:05 p.m. today. Coach Tim Chambers, who will serve out a four-game suspension for bumping an umpire Sunday at San Diego State, will be allowed to take part in pregame senior-day ceremonies.
Playing the Wolf Pack brought the bats back to life for UNLV, which struggled to hit in losing six of eight games before facing its instate rival. The Rebels, 20-3 at home, produced 25 runs and 28 hits through the first two games of this series, including 18 hits Friday.
“I don’t know what’s causing it,” Stolte said. “Everyone’s taking better at-bats. I think it’s carrying over to their confidence. Hopefully, we can keep it going.”
They had to keep hitting because UNR’s offense didn’t exactly take the night off in finishing with 15 hits.
The Wolf Pack, in fact, opened the game by scoring three runs in the first inning that included a two-run homer by Austin Byler. It was Byler’s conference-leading 14th homer.
“We weren’t worried at all,” said Hernandez, who went 2-for-4 with three RBIs and has driven in seven runs in the series. “We knew we’d come back. We knew we could play with them. We’re really good at home.”
UNLV came right back with eight runs in the bottom of the first, sending 12 batters to the plate and chasing UNR left-handed starting pitcher Barry Timko after two-thirds of an inning. The Rebels cranked out seven hits in the inning, spreading the damage around.
They appeared in excellent shape when Patrick Armstrong hit a two-run homer in the fourth, his 13th, to extend the lead to 10-4. But UNR wouldn’t go away in chipping away with single runs in the fifth and sixth.
Again, the victory seemed assured when UNLV sent nine batters to the plate in the sixth and scored four runs, with three coming off a triple from Erik VanMeetren.
And again, the Wolf Pack refused to go quietly, with Ryan Teel hitting a three-run homer in the seventh to cut into the lead at 14-9.
UNLV finally brought some order when lefty reliever Andrew Encinas recorded a key out in the seventh and lefty Brayden Torres closed out the final two innings as the Rebels added three runs in the eighth with nine hitters walking to the plate.
The Rebels played without center fielder Joey Armstrong (hand) and left fielder Joey Swanner (hamstring).
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.