UNLV has big dreams for this baseball season, and if this past weekend was any indication, the Rebels have the starting pitching to realize at least most of them.
They swept Central Michigan in a four-game series to open the season, receiving outstanding production from the starters in each game.
Sophomore right-hander Bryan Bonnell provided the exclamation mark in Sunday’s 6-2 victory at Wilson Stadium, throwing a five-hit complete game and striking out a career-high 11 batters in just his second start. His previous high was one strikeout in four separate outings last season.
UNLV’s four starters — Erick Fedde, John Richy, Kenny Oakley and Bonnell — combined to allow 13 hits and five earned runs over 29 2/3 innings against the Chippewas. They also struck out a total of 36 hitters.
If the Rebels, who next play a three-game series at Tennessee beginning Friday, keep getting that kind of production, they will make their first NCAA regional appearance since 2005. This is a team that wants to do more than show up for a regional, though, and whether UNLV is a major player in the postseason will largely come down to whether the starters build on this weekend.
The Rebels, however, have some work to do in other areas.
They struggled to execute bunts and get timely hits. Matt McCallister struck out bunting in the fifth inning Sunday, and UNLV left 10 runners on, including the bases full in the seventh and eighth.
And then there’s the bullpen. Left-hander Brayden Torres picked up a save and a win against Central Michigan, giving up two hits and no runs in 4 1/3 innings, but the other relief pitchers combined to allow seven hits and four earned runs in two innings.
UNLV, of course, has time improve, and the Rebels showed some signs that will happen.
The Rebels scored 11 runs in Saturday’s second game of a doubleheader, rallying with four in the seventh after giving up eight in the top half. And they did enough offensively Sunday, with T.J. White coming through with a two-run single with two outs in the fifth to take a 3-2 lead and go ahead for good.
“They had been throwing me a lot of offspeed, and that at bat, they actually came at me with the fastball,” said White, who had three RBIs for the day. “But you have to hit it hard through the hole. I made an error earlier, so I kind of made up for it.”
UNLV also is waiting for the return of closer Zack Hartman, a right-hander still trying to come back from Tommy John surgery last season. His return, expected to occur next month, will give coach Tim Chambers more flexibility on how to use his bullpen.
Bonnell was a member of that pen last season, and his performance — UNLV’s first complete game since Oakley on April 21 of last year against San Diego State — gives them something to think about. Is he a midweek starter, or could Bonnell become the pitcher regularly given the ball on Sundays?
“I want that Sunday job,” Bonnell said. “That was my goal coming in.”
Bonnell’s performance helped give Chambers his 100th career victory at UNLV. The fourth-year coach is the fastest to reach that milestone for the Rebels, taking only 176 games, beating predecessor Buddy Gouldsmith’s mark by seven.
Chambers downplayed the significance. He knows bigger goals are out there.
Whether the Rebels reach them remains to be seen, but their starting pitching should give them a chance.
“This team will fight all year,” Chambers said. “I just want us to get better and work hard.”
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.