The Mountain West Conference baseball tournament is upon us, so we reached out to people familiar with each of the seven teams in order to gain some insight about them.
More than any other team in this year's conference tournament, the UNLV Rebels may be the most difficult to figure out. They were only slightly below average both at home and on the road, and inside and outside of conference play, as well, but they finished fourth in the conference despite one of the more lackluster team offenses and its worst team defense. All together, it's made for a tough draw in New Mexico: The league's best lineup in Air Force first and then, with a win, the league's best pitching staff in Fresno State.
Anything is possible in such a short window of time, though, and the Las Vegas Review-Journal's Todd Dewey was able to tell us that suits UNLV just fine.
Mountain West Connection: I imagine the offseason was a little more tumultuous than the Rebels would have liked, but they more or less ended up where prognosticators expected them to be in the MWC pecking order. Is this a good thing or a bad thing, and why?
Todd Dewey: Considering UNLV was picked to finish fifth in the Mountain West preseason poll, it has to be considered a good thing that it finished in fourth place, exceeding the expectations of the conference's coaches. The Rebels placed in the middle of the pack in the standings despite finishing near the bottom of the league in several key offensive, defensive and pitching categories.
MWC: How important has Peyton Squier's development been as an on-base machine (.383/.449/.442) in the heart of the order?
TD: Squier's development has been invaluable to the Rebels' offense. The sophomore left fielder's team-leading .383 batting average is the highest by a UNLV starter since 2004, when Eric Nielsen hit .402. Squier raised his average by almost 100 points from last season, when he hit .287. He and third baseman Kyle Isbel, batting .323, are the only two Rebels batting better than .300.
MWC: I noticed that Kenny Oakley, UNLV's lone representative on the preseason all-conference team, led the conference's pitchers in losses despite leading the team in ERA and innings pitched. Is it more a matter of hard luck, or does his .293 opponents' batting average tell a story the Rebels didn't expect?
TD: Oakley and the rest of UNLV's pitching staff suffered from a lack of run support as the Rebels finished next-to-last in the league in batting (.269), runs (63) and home runs (19). Oakley also surrendered a whopping 19 unearned runs as UNLV led the MW in errors (81) and had the worst fielding percentage (.961) in the conference. That said, Oakley compiled his highest ERA (3.98) in his four seasons at the school.
MWC: Besides Squier and Oakley, who else do you think needs to have a big week for the Rebels to make a run at an NCAA tournament berth?
TD: Besides Squier and Oakley, who is slated to start UNLV's second game of the double-elimination tournament on Thursday, the Rebels need several other players to step up, including Game 1 starter D.J. Myers (6-3, 4.54 ERA), who won a 1-0 pitchers' duel with Air Force ace Griffin Jax in UNLV's sweep of the Falcons in April. The Rebels also need to get their bats going. Cooper Esmay, third on the team in batting (.275), homered twice in the regular-season finale at UNR and Justin Jones led UNLV in homers (five) and RBIs (28).