As soon as the baseball bounced into his glove, all UNLV shortstop Matt McCallister had to do was make the routine throw to first base during a ninth inning that was anything but routine.
McCallister, though, was confident.
“I knew it was a for-sure out,” he said.
He was right. The game was over, and almost as soon as his throw landed in first baseman Patrick Armstrong’s glove, the Rebels jumped all over each other, forming a dog pile just in front of second base.
They not only had beaten UNR 4-2 on Saturday at Wilson Stadium to complete a three-game sweep of their biggest rival, but they also had grabbed a share of the Mountain West regular-season title and clinched the No. 1 seed for this week’s conference tournament.
UNLV, which shares the title with New Mexico, owns the regular-season conference championship for the first time since 2005.
“That’s what you work for from the first day when show up in the fall is to win a championship,” UNLV acting coach Stan Stolte said. “Hopefully, we’ve got another one our way coming this week. Regardless, you can’t take this one away from us, and it’s a good feeling.”
The Rebels (33-21, 20-10 MW) have been dominant at home, and being at Wilson Stadium was a major advantage after losing six of eight games before this series, with seven of those on the road. The conference tournament is at their park, but Stolte didn’t want to make a big issue out of that since Texas Christian in 2008 was the last team to win the tourney on its field.
It has happened only three times, with UNLV in 2004 one of those teams. But the host team has seldom been the No. 1 seed, with TCU occupying the top spot entering the 2008 and 2009 tournaments.
The Rebels receive the top seed because of their 5-1 record against New Mexico this season.
Given the Rebels are 21-3 at home, they have to be considered the favorite when the tournament opens Wednesday. Because of a first-day bye for being one of the top two seeds, they don’t play until 7 p.m. Thursday.
UNLV coach Tim Chambers will be back for the tournament, having served his four-game suspension for making contact with an umpire last weekend at San Diego State.
He hopes to get more pitching performances like what right-hander Kenny Oakley (4-6) delivered Saturday against the Wolf Pack (28-25, 15-15). He pitched shutout ball for eight innings, giving up three hits.
Oakley got better as the game went along, retiring the final eight batters before turning over the game to the bullpen in the ninth inning.
“My curveball started real slow the first few innings; I just couldn’t get it over,” Oakley said. “In between innings, I was throwing my curveball a bunch, and then by the fourth or fifth I finally got it down.
“Especially when I’ve gone through the order a few times and they’ve seen this bad curveball and then all of the sudden my normal curveball comes out, it kind of catches them off guard. Then they’re looking for that, and then my changeup’s available and my slider’s available.”
Right-hander Joey Lauria and lefty Brayden Torres have been reliable for the Rebels in late relief, with Lauria coming into the game with a 3.26 ERA and Torres with a 2.49.
Finishing didn’t come so easily this time, however, with Lauria being pulled during a count after giving up a walk, double and sacrifice fly. Torres then got a ground-out, but gave up back-to-back singles to allow UNR to cut the lead to 4-2.
Torres then got the final out on Brad Gerig’s grounder to McCallister for his seventh and most important save of the season.
UNLV built a 4-0 in the third inning, making the most of four singles, an error, a sacrifice fly and a sacrifice bunt.
The Rebels had the chance to add to the lead in the sixth, but an unusual double play on a batter’s interference and strikeout helped keep them from scoring.
Those were the only two innings UNLV had any hits, as UNR’s combination of Jason Deitrich (2-2) and Colby Blueberg kept the Rebels’ offense mostly in check.
But the Rebels did more than enough to win, and now they have a co-championship to show for it.
“It means so much,” said McCallister, who went 1-for-3 with an RBI and a run. “We worked so hard for this. There was so much adversity. We battled through all that.”
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at email@example.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.