UNLV has the starting pitching to go all the way to Omaha, Neb.
But the Rebels won’t come close to making the College World Series if they don’t start hitting with more consistency.
And they won’t start hitting with more consistency if they keep suffering injuries.
The fact UNLV is off to a strong start speaks highly of its pitching and having just enough offense to be at the top of the Mountain West as a key home series opens. UNLV (14-6, 7-2 MW) plays San Diego State (16-4, 4-2) in a three-game series beginning at 6:05 p.m. today at Wilson Stadium.
“It’s a huge weekend,” Rebels coach Tim Chambers said. “If we can get out of that thing winning the series and then get healthy down the back half of the schedule, I think we’re going to be just fine. I’m happy with where we’re at right now, I really am.”
UNLV’s top four starting pitchers produced quality starts in 18 of their first 19 outings. The one that didn’t qualify, March 3 against UC Riverside, was by design when Kenny Oakley threw five shutout innings. A quality start is when a pitcher goes at least six innings and gives up no more than three earned runs.
UNLV’s team ERA is 2.16. The NCAA’s last rankings, which reflect the games through Sunday, placed the Rebels at seventh nationally with a 1.94 ERA.
“I think with everyone throwing well, we feed off that,” said right-hander John Richy, who is 4-0 with a 2.23 ERA. “If Erick (Fedde) goes out there on Friday night and throws well, the next day I expect myself to go out there and put the team in a spot to win. We’re all very competitive.”
Hitting has been another story.
Everyday players Justin Jones, Joey Swanner and T.J. White have missed games because of various ailments and played hurt at other times. Those injuries forced players into unfamiliar positions, and Chambers has scrambled to put together a consistent lineup.
White, who is batting .338 with a team-high 18 RBIs, is the Rebels’ third baseman, but he has started five games at second in place of the injured Jones.
“It’s a tough role for guys showing up to the ballpark and not knowing where you’re going to be playing that day,” White said. “We’ve got guys doing the job for us. It’s a big team effort. The more your team stays together, the easier it is.”
UNLV’s .292 team batting average is far from awful, but the hitting has been all over the map.
The Rebels scored 25 runs in two games against Air Force, then eked out a 5-4 10-inning victory the following day against Riverside. They opened with eight runs at New Mexico, then scored seven times in the final two games. UNLV blasted San Jose State with 18 runs to open another series, then pushed across four runs over the final two games.
“Some guys who had good years last year are off to a slow start, and we really just haven’t found ourselves offensively,” Chambers said. “It seems like every time we get something going, it’s with two outs.”
The lack of dependable hitting is why a year after going 13-5 in one-run games, the Rebels are 4-5 this season. All six of their defeats have been by two runs or fewer.
But those statistics also are a sign of promise for the Rebels.
UNLV isn’t getting blown out, and even with inconsistent hitting the Rebels are on a path to make a regional for the first time since 2005. The Rebels even have received votes in the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association poll.
“We’ve done pretty well, and we’re continuing it despite the adversity of injuries,” White said. “Now that everyone’s starting to get healthy, I think we’ll continue and have a great year.”
NOTE: UNLV’s game March 30 at Nebraska will be televised by the Big Ten Network (Cox Cable 312).
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter @markanderson65.