Oakley holds on tight during baseball program’s wild ride

Riding hot streaks and cold streaks like a Las Vegas high roller, the UNLV baseball team has experienced extreme highs and lows the last four seasons, including this one.

Rebels senior pitcher Kenny Oakley has had a front-row seat for the wild ride that started with back-to-back seasons of at least 36 wins, a share of a Mountain West regular-season title and a trip to the NCAA Regionals and was followed by a losing season and the departure of coach Tim Chambers last year.

A young UNLV (12-19, 5-10 Mountain West) team has continued to struggle this season under coach Stan Stolte, losing nine of 10 games during one rough stretch in which it was swept at home by UNR.

“I’ve been through everything on this team. It’s kind of crazy,” Oakley said. “Good teams. Bad teams. Good times. Bad times. We’ve almost lived four separate college baseball lives as a team.”

Through all the ups and downs, Oakley has stayed remarkably consistent. In his first three seasons at UNLV, the Coronado High School product posted ERAs of 3.21, 3.06 and 3.18. After a slow start this season, the 6-foot-3-inch right-hander has again emerged as a bright spot on the squad, improving to 3-3 with a 3.86 ERA.

“I’m very comfortable where I’m at now and think the best of my season is yet to come,” he said. “The key for me is not so much being great every time I pitch but being able to adapt on those days I’m not and not let a bad day turn into a terrible day.”

Oakley earned second-team all-Mountain West honors last season and was the Rebels’ only preseason all-conference selection this season.

“Kenny answers the bell every time, no matter what,” Stolte said. “He’s given us a chance every time he’s pitched. He’s just a winner and a competitor.”

Oakley gave up three runs, two earned, in five innings in Saturday’s 9-7 loss at San Diego State. Before losing two of three games to the Aztecs (9-20, 4-8 MW), Oakley said he was optimistic about the rest of the season.

“I don’t think anybody has seen the best of the Rebels yet. I think we’re coming,” he said. “These last few games we’ve started to turn it around. Nobody in our clubhouse is hanging their head.”

STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE

Stolte said some of his squad’s struggles stem from a challenging schedule that saw UNLV open the season at then-No. 23 Texas before hosting No. 22 Texas Tech, West Virginia and Ohio State.

“I knew coming out of the chute that it was going to be tough to get a lot of wins,” he said. “We’ve played well at times but we had a tough weekend with (UNR) that set us back.

“The kids are grinding. I think we’re close to turning the corner. We’ve started to hit and we’ve got to continue to play better defense and pitch well.”

The schedule doesn’t get any easier for the Rebels, who will play at San Diego (17-17) today before hosting an improved Air Force squad (18-8, 8-4 MW) in a three-game series starting Friday at Wilson Stadium. The Falcons feature arguably the league’s best pitcher in Griffin Jax (6-1, 1.66 ERA) and two of its most dangerous hitters in Adam Groesbeck (.444) and Tyler Jones (10 HRs, 37 RBIs).

UNLV plays at Arizona State on April 19 and at perennial power Cal State Fullerton from April 22 to 24.

ISBEL EARNS HONOR

Rebels leadoff hitter Kyle Isbel was named Outstanding Rebel of the Week after going 11-for-20 (.550). The freshman third baseman went 5-for-5 with four RBIs in an 8-5 win over Texas Tech and went 7-for-8 with two walks in the two-game series. Isbel, second on the team in batting with a .313 average, saw his 13-game hitting streak end Saturday.

Sophomore left fielder Payton Squier leads UNLV in batting with a .362 average and junior first baseman Corey Pool has a team-leading 18 RBIs.

RIVALRY GAMES

The Rebels softball team (19-22, 3-9 Mountain West), which snapped a seven-game losing streak with Saturday’s 8-2 win over Boise State, will host UNR in a three-game series starting Friday at Eller Media Stadium.

Contact reporter Todd Dewey at tdewey@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0354. Follow him on Twitter: @tdewey33

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