T.J. White was UNLV’s best player in this tournament, but after injuring his left hand Saturday, he knew he had only one at-bat in him Sunday.
He made the most of it, leading off the bottom of the ninth inning with a pinch-hit single.
White eventually made it to third base, but didn’t advance any farther.
Ninety feet from home.
UNLV came that close to at least forcing extra innings, but the Rebels had to watch as San Diego State celebrated on their own field, the 4-3 victory giving the Aztecs the Mountain West baseball tournament championship and automatic bid to an NCAA regional.
This was San Diego State’s second Mountain West tournament title in a row and third overall. The Ratings Percentage Index ranking for the third-seeded Aztecs (42-19) shot up eight spots from the previous night to 36th.
Top-seeded UNLV’s RPI fell from five places to 31st, and teams in the top 40 have the best chances to receive at-large berths to regionals. The Rebels (35-23) have appeared to be a two-seed, but this drop in the RPI could result in being a No. 3.
UNLV coach Tim Chambers said he believed his team would get a two-seed.
“That’s the reason we played the schedule we played,” he said.
UNLV, which lost consecutive games at Wilson Stadium for the only time this season, finds out its postseason future when ESPNU televises the selection show at 9 a.m. today.
“Obviously, we’re disappointed in not getting a win, but we’ve got to move forward,” Chambers said. “We’ve still got a shot to do something special.”
San Diego State threatened to take control throughout Sunday’s game, but left 13 runners on base. Clutch pitching by Joey Lauria, Cody Roper and Brayden Torres repeatedly kept the Rebels within striking distance.
Lauria, a reliever making his first start of the season, overcame a three-run first inning to give the Rebels a chance. He allowed only four hits over his final 4 1/3 innings, and finished with five strikeouts to tie a career best.
“I was just giving my team a chance to win,” Lauria said. “These guys are like brothers to me. I told them last night I was going to compete my tail off for them.”
UNLV evened the score in the bottom of the fifth. Joey Swanner and Justin Jones opened the inning with walks, and then Morgan Stotts followed with a double to score Swanner. An error by Aztecs center fielder Greg Allen, who otherwise spent the tournament using his outstanding range to hits into flyouts, allowed Jones to score as well to make the score 3-3.
But the Aztecs went back in front half an inning later on Evan Potter’s sacrifice fly to bring in Seby Zavala.
San Diego State was on the verge of breaking open the game in the seventh, loading the bases with one out. Then Jones, playing second base for the Rebels, made a sensational diving catch off a hard liner and then stayed with a popup he lost in the sun for two key outs.
The stage finally was set for the bottom of the ninth when White went in to pinch hit. He had been on a tear, going 7-for-14 in the tournament, but injured his hand Saturday.
“I’ll be doing everything I can to be back,” White said of playing in a regional. “Even if I’m not 100 percent, I’ll still be playing.”
White, bad hand and all, singled to open the ninth, and moved to second on Matt McCallister’s bunt.
San Diego State then brought in Michael Cederoth to close the game. The Rebels had rallied from 4-1 down two nights earlier against Cederoth, one of the nation’s top closers who had 19 saves entering this game.
“I thought we were going to do it again,” White said.
Swanner grounded into the second out of the inning, but one batter later White went to third on a passed ball.
Jones, the hero in the field, looked as if he might come through at the plate, too, lifting a fly to deep right field. The ball instead landed in Danny Sheehan’s glove, and the game was over.
Even as disappointing as the loss was for the Rebels, they now at least get to look forward. This is a program that hasn’t competed in a regional in nine years, and unless the NCAA selection committee pulls a major surprise, UNLV still has some baseball to play.
“Next week, we’ll be in a regional,” Lauria said, “and we’ll move past this.”
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.