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Chambers’ Rebels not fazed by challenges

Now coaching baseball at UNLV … Abbott and Costello.

“Our third baseman from last year got up to 220 pounds, lost 30 and is now a shortstop,” Tim Chambers said. “A kid we recruited to play shortstop is playing second. A kid we recruited to play second is playing first. A kid we recruited to play outfield is playing third base. We have a couple first basemen, five catchers and four outfielders available.

“We’re two injuries away from being terrible, and yet we keep putting things together.”

Who’s on first?

What’s on second?

I Don’t Know is on third, and I’m not sure Chambers does a few hours before the first pitch each game.

But none of it has stopped the Rebels from inching closer to their first NCAA Tournament regional berth in eight years and what would be the first under Chambers in his three seasons as coach.

It won’t be easy. It would be an accomplishment earned primarily on the road in the next three weeks, when the Rebels play 10 of their final 15 regular-season games.

Sounds like the perfect situation for this team.

It has no depth. It wasn’t supposed to be this competitive until next season and isn’t supposed to be really good until the season after that.

Today might be the name of one of those five catchers.

Tomorrow might be starting on the mound at No. 8 Arizona State.

But in the crazy, uncertain, ever-changing flow that is a baseball season, Chambers is reminding his players daily to embrace the good and not doubt the prosperity that keeps finding them.

“We’re 12-4 in one-run games and have had 14 come-from-behind wins after the sixth inning,” he said. “We could be a much better team next year and still lose those kind of games. That’s why I want the kids to stay loose and not panic and enjoy winning right now.

“We’re super young. We’ve had our share of injuries. Before the season, I looked at my coaches and said, ‘Where are the wins coming from? We’ll be lucky to get 15.’ ”

UNLV is 27-12 today.

The Rebels play the Sun Devils tonight in Tempe, Ariz., one of those midweek games whose importance might not carry the weight of a three-game Mountain West series, but in which a victory could earn the type of Ratings Percentage Index bump and recognition that strengthens the argument for an NCAA at-large bid.

UNLV’s resume includes a three-game sweep of then-No. 9 Stanford in March and a subsequent national ranking for the Rebels that lasted fewer than two weeks.

But in the long-term vision of building his program, Chambers was far more upbeat about sweeping league rival San Diego State last weekend than anything that happened in Palo Alto, Calif.

He will be even more hopeful about his team’s NCAA chances if it can get the best of first-place New Mexico for three games in Albuquerque this week. This is where the journey begins for him, by starting to beat those conference opponents that have more or less owned the Rebels lately.

“San Diego State and New Mexico have had our number since I got here,” Chambers said. “Sweeping (Stanford) was great and a big step for us, but to really turn the program around, we need to consistently beat those top teams in league.

“Unless (New Mexico) does something like sweep us this week and just run away from the rest of the conference, I really believe finishing in at least second place will get us to the NCAAs. It would be nice to get a couple more midweek wins against teams like ASU or University of San Diego (May 6), a few more RPI points that way.”

It just feels like one of those seasons you get in baseball, when a starting catcher (Erik VanMeetren) can be struggling at the plate and a freshman (Collin Yelich) can replace him and play well enough to receive conference player of the week honors and the starter can regain his spot and earn the same award a few weeks later.

When most of the one-run games fall in your favor and you have rallied for enough wins in which your players never truly believe it can’t be done again. When they’re not experienced enough to know better.

The kind of season when Who and What and I Don’t Know carry the load.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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