Patrick Armstrong was out of shape last fall and couldn’t hit, and he knew he was hanging on to a UNLV roster spot by the smallest of threads.
He saw the look in coach Tim Chambers’ eyes after taking batting practice before a fall league game against Cal State Fullerton and was convinced he would be cut.
But after Armstrong reached the dugout, instead of being let go, he was told by Chambers to get in shape and improve his game, or he wouldn’t see the playing field.
“He basically said, ‘You’re not good enough to play,’ ” Armstrong said. “That was the reality check.”
Armstrong used the second chance as a source of motivation and would wind up telling his baseball coach later that fall that, despite all evidence to the contrary, he would be the team’s starting first baseman.
He did more than that. Armstrong got into shape, won the starting job during the season and is UNLV’s leading hitter with a .393 average entering the Mountain West tournament. He has seven home runs and 39 RBIs.
“When you play for me, you’re going to get a turn at some point to do something,” Chambers said. “I think everybody deserves a shot. He got his turn. He wasn’t going to let me take him out.”
The Rebels (36-18), as the No. 2 seed, received a first-round bye in the tournament, which began Wednesday in Fresno, Calif. Their first game in the double-elimination tournament is at 3 p.m. today against No. 3 seed San Diego State (27-28).
Armstrong helped them win nine of their final 11 regular-season games, hitting all seven of his homers in the past three weeks. On Wednesday, he was named second-team all-conference.
Armstrong, a junior, transferred to UNLV from Sacramento (Calif.) City College, where last season he batted .262 and attracted little recruiting attention. His brother, Joey, signed with the Rebels out of Lodi (Calif.) High School last year and put in a good word for Armstrong.
Chambers invited Armstrong aboard but soured when he didn’t like what he saw in the fall. Armstrong wasn’t in proper condition — “a big fat guy at first base,” he called himself — and didn’t look as if he belonged on a Division I team.
But Chambers also saw how Armstrong interacted with his teammates and thought he could provide leadership.
“How can your leader be somebody who’s not playing?” Chambers said. “He just gets the game. He understands the game. He doesn’t throw (stuff) around or pout when he doesn’t do well. He keeps the team loose.
“No one named him the leader. He just took it.”
But Chambers also sent his message to Armstrong that he had work to do.
The Armstrong brothers motivated each other during the winter break. One day one would encourage the other to hit the weightroom, and another day the roles would be reversed.
“We saw the level of play in the fall with playing Fullerton and all those guys,” Joey Armstrong said. “It’s totally another level of baseball. We just pushed each other, and it helped a lot having him, and I’m sure him having me, to keep each other motivated.”
Armstrong returned to campus still at 6 feet, 225 pounds, but the weight was distributed differently. It now was in muscle rather than flab.
“My belly wasn’t in the way, so I could start pulling the ball,” Armstrong said jokingly.
Teammates teased him about what kind of performance-enhancing drugs he was taking.
Armstrong, though, wasn’t in the lineup often enough early in the season to generate Mark McGwire-like numbers. He platooned at first base until one day in late March while Chambers sat in his San Diego hotel room that he realized he needed to get Armstrong’s bat in the lineup regularly.
“I thought, ‘What am I, stupid?’ ” Chambers said. “The guy’s hitting. You’ve got to play him every day.”
Then Chambers had another revelation May 6 at home against the University of San Diego. What was he doing hitting Armstrong sixth and seventh in the order?
Chambers moved the slugger to the cleanup spot, and Armstrong’s presence there helped UNLV hit its late-season stride.
“Since he’s been in the four-hole, we’re playing our best baseball of the year,” Chambers said.
Armstrong did what the No. 4 hitter is supposed to do, and that’s provide power.
But it wasn’t as simple as moving up in the batting order.
Armstrong delivered home run after home run in batting practice but settled for singles and doubles in games. Chambers told him it was about time he cleared the wall in games.
But Armstrong didn’t go all out to hit home runs, so he remained patient, and sure enough, the long balls began to appear.
“I told him if he had been doing what he’s doing, he’d have 15 or 20 right now,” Chambers said. “Those are the kind of expectations I’m going to put on him next year.”
Now the Rebels hope to continue their unexpectedly good season, one that surpassed Chambers’ expectations. They have the chance to make an NCAA regional for the first time since 2005.
Whether they get there or not, the Rebels probably wouldn’t have been in the position to even contend if their once out-of-shape first baseman with little chance of playing hadn’t been such an integral part of this season.
“The worst fall I ever had in my life,” Armstrong said. “It was the worst baseball I ever played. It was embarrassing, and it felt good to come out here and be comfortable again.
“It felt good to actually know that I had a chance.”
■ ALL-MWC — UNLV junior Buddy Borden was named conference co-pitcher of the year with UNR junior Braden Shipley. Borden is 8-1 with a 2.19 ERA. Senior outfielder Brandon Bayardi joined Borden on the first-team all-conference squad, the third year in a row he earned that honor. In addition to Patrick Armstrong, sophomore third baseman T.J. White and senior designated hitter/utility player Mark Shannon made the second team.
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.