The UNLV Rebels baseball team is headed to the NCAA Regional tournament for the first time in nine years. The Mountain West Conference regular season champions are the No. 2 seed in the 4-team regional in Corvallis, Oregon.
The Rebels (35-23) will take on UC Irvine, seeded third, at 2:00 p.m. (PT) Friday, with No. 1 seed Oregon State taking on fourth-seed North Dakota State in the other first round game at 8:00. Competition will take place over the weekend and is expected to wind up on Sunday, however the double-elimination affair could extend into Monday. Winners of each of the 16 regional tournaments will move on to best-of-three super-regionals for the right to advance to the College World Series in Omaha, NE.
Even though they lost in the Championship game of the Mountain West Conference tournament last weekend, the Rebels were high enough in their RPI rating to earn one of the at-large berths into post-season play for 2014. One of the big reasons was their killer schedule. UNLV went on the road this year to Nebraska, Arkansas and Clemson—all teams who qualified for regional tournaments this year, and all teams who are either 2- or 3-seeds in their respective tournaments. “Nobody went on the road like we went on the road” said Coach Tim Chambers, in his fourth season as head of the program. By comparison, the team which beat UNLV for the Mountain West Tournament title, San Diego State, had a worse RPI than the Rebels and was relegated to a No. 3 seed and the regional tournament in Lafayette, LA.
The Rebels have been working at a disadvantage for the last three weeks of the season. It was announced on May 10 that their best pitcher, Eric Fedde, was lost for the season and would undergo Tommy John surgery to repair a torn ligament in his throwing arm. Fedde was projected as, and still might be, a first-round pick in the Major League Baseball draft in June. He wound up the season with a record of 8-2, with an ERA of 1.76.
The loss of Fedde throws a decision into the hands of Chambers, who still has not decided whether he will throw his new ace, John Richy (11-3, 2.78 ERA) in the first game, or save him for a possible Saturday matchup with No. 1-seed Oregon St. If he decides to save Richy for Saturday, Chambers is toying with the idea of making relief pitcher Braydon Torres a starter. Torres was named the top relief pitcher in the Mountain West Tournament and sports a 2.05 ERA. Offensively the Rebels are lead by Patrick Armstrong, who hit .306 this season with seven home runs and 45 RBI.
One of the last four teams to make the 64-team field for post-season play, the UC-Irvine Anteaters are a tournament-tested team. Even though they finished third in the Big West this year, they have qualified for the NCAA tournament field eight of the last 11 years. Their pitching staff is anchored by right-hander Andrew Morales (9-2, 1.56 ERA). Their top hitter is Connor Spencer who was third in his conference with a .361 average.
Commentary by Chuck Podhaisky