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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Mid-major spotlight

Kendall Rogers        
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UNLV might've walked into a gold mine by hiring coach Tim Chambers.

Chambers is in third season with the Rebels. And though he has yet to guide the Rebels back to the NCAA postseason, that hiatus appears to be on its way to ending this spring, as his club is off to a fantastic 13-3 start, coming off a monumental road series sweep over national power Stanford last weekend.

There were plenty of reasons the Rebels should've hired Chambers a few seasons ago despite getting interest from some solid coaches around the country. Chambers developed the College of Southern Nevada into a national power. And what is now a very relevant feather in his cap, Chambers built a junior college power using wooden bats.

In essence, while many coaches around college baseball continue to make changes to their style and recruiting to suit the controversial BBCOR bats, Chambers and the Rebels seemingly already have the system down.

"For me, this group we have this season is faster than any group I've ever had," Chambers said. "It was huge for me that we didn't have to change our offensive philosophy at all. Just like at CSN, we have been able to just recruit athletic guys who like to run, with the goal of putting intense pressure on opposing defenses. You have to be creative from an offensive standpoint these days, as pitching really is the name of the game with these new bats."

UNLV is getting a big-time campaign from pitcher Buddy Borden. (UNLV photo)

While UNLV's offensive lineup certainly is improved this spring, the pitching staff is the most noticeable change from last season. The Rebels finished the 2012 campaign with a rather unimpressive 5.06 earned-run average. However, things have been much different so far in 2013, as they carry a 2.48 ERA into this week's action.

The development of a solid weekend rotation is a big reason for that change. The Rebels have a solid trio of starting pitchers in junior right-hander Buddy Borden, and sophomore right-handers Erick Fedde and John Richy.

Fedde, a 6-foot-4, 165-pounder, was a consistent arm for the Rebels last season, but like the others, has taken a step forward with better pure stuff. Fedde, who has a 3.59 ERA, has gotten bigger and stronger, and is displaying better command than last season with 22 strikeouts and seven walks in 24 innings of work. He also is flashing dominant stuff with a fastball sitting 90-93, getting up to 94 at times.

Richy and Borden have taken the most significant steps forward. Richy finished last season with a 5.93 ERA, but is vastly improved this spring. He came up huge last weekend against Stanford, allowing just one run (not earned) on two hits in a complete game performance in the win over the Cardinal. Now, for the season, Richy has a 2.96 ERA in 27 1/3 innings. Borden also threw well against the Cardinal over the weekend, and has made major strides with an 0.64 ERA so far this season, as opposed to the 4.94 ERA he tallied in '12.

"John really stepped up over the weekend. He's a really neat story, and all three of those starters are neat guys. They all work out together, and they have a routine. You really don't have to worry about them at all," Chambers said. "Kids have to take responsibility for what they really want to do, and how far they want to go. You don't have to look over your shoulder with those guys."

From a sheer stuff standpoint, Borden, an imposing 6-foot-3, 210-pounder, has consistently been 91-93, and up to 95, with his fastball this season. Meanwhile, Richy has the best overall stuff on the staff with good command of three pitches, and an 89-92 mph fastball.

Even without talented reliever Zack Hartman, who will miss the remainder of the season after he has Tommy John surgery this Friday, the Rebels, in addition to their impressive starting rotation, have a stable bullpen with premium arms.

For instance, senior right-handed pitcher Andrew Beresford, who has a 1.08 ERA in 8 1/3 innings of work, has a fastball 90-95, while Brady Zuniga has a 1.12 ERA in eight innings, and Brayden Torres has a 4.50 ERA in just two innings of work with a fastball 89-92, along with good secondary stuff.

"I almost kind of felt bad over the weekend against Stanford because we only had to use five total pitchers, so some guys weren't able to get some work. Our starters have been throwing into the seventh inning so far this season," he said. "I'm pleased with the bullpen."

With the pitching staff performing at such a high level, the Rebels haven't been as reliant on the offense to get the job done this season, especially from a power standpoint. UNLV has a solid .309 team batting average, but take into account it doesn't have a home run in 16 contests.

UNLV's different offensive philosophy might be best illustrated by the campaign hard-hitting outfielder Brandon Bayardi is putting together. Bayardi led the Rebels in homers each of the last two seasons. However, this season, Bayardi, who has surprisingly good speed, has been much more reliant on finding different ways to get on base, whether it's with a bunt, or slap hit through the hole.

The rest of the lineup has taken note of that, and followed suit.

"Bayardi really takes a lot of pressure off our lineup. He's not thinking about hitting homers anymore, he's just trying to get on base," Chambers said. "He takes a pitch, and looks at the third baseman. If the third baseman is playing back, unlike previous years, he'll sit there and throw down a bunt and beat it out. He's got pretty good speed out there."

Erik VanMeetren also is having a solid offensive campaign with a .385 batting average and 10 RBIs, while Bayardi provides some protection for Mark Shannon, who's hitting .379 with 11 RBIs.

"This team is getting much faster, and they're understanding what we're trying to do here," Chambers said. "We have a long way to go, but we're getting better and better. We just have to stay focused on the task at hand."

UNLV realizes it's still March, but this program is headed the right direction.

And for those of us who know what Tim Chambers is all about, we're not the least bit surprised.

Mid-major hot board

Louisiana-Lafayette (13-3): The Ragin' Cajuns were picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the Sun Belt, but are off to an incredibly hot start this season. While Austin Robichaux has been impressive on the mound, Michael Strentz leads the Cajuns offense with an impressive .395 batting average, six doubles, a triple, two homers and 14 RBIs.

Central Arkansas (14-2): The Bears vaulted into the PG Top 25 this week after hitting the road and taking a huge series over Mississippi State last weekend. Bryce Biggerstaff continues to be an excellent pitcher for UCA, while Forrest Allday and Michael Marietta lead the offense with batting averages of .470 and .351, respectively.

Mercer (13-2): Though the Bears began last week with a tough midweek loss to Georgia Tech, they bounced back the rest of the week with a 3-1 record. Mercer has an impressive offensive lineup with Derrick Workman, Chesny Young and Nick Backlund leading the charge, while Brandon Barker has a 1.90 ERA in 23 2/3 innings of work on the bump.

Florida Gulf Coast (13-3): The impressive Eagles are coming off a perfect 5-0 week, and continue to get incredibly strong starting pitching from Ricky Knapp (0.87, 31 IP) and Brandon Bixler (0.56, 16 IP), while Brooks Beisner leads the offense with a .444 batting average, five doubles, four homers and 17 RBIs.

Furman (12-4): What an impressive week the Paladins put together. They captured a pair of wins over Coastal Carolina before taking their second-straight SoCon series over Appalachian State. Starting pitcher Nate Smith (2.60, 27.2 IP) and reliever Ben Carlson (0.66, 13.2) continue to shine, while Paul Nitto leads the offense with a .358 average, two homers and 15 RBIs.

Lamar (14-2): The Cardinals were expected to finish in the middle of the pack in the Southland Conference, but instead have been a huge surprise so far this spring. LU has a trio of solid starting pitchers in Eric Harrington, Collin Chapman and Jonathan Dziedzic, while Darian Johnson leads the offense with a .418 average and 15 RBIs.

South Alabama (14-3): The Jaguars, along with the Ragin' Cajuns, are absolutely a team to watch in the Sun Belt this spring. USA hit the road last week and captured a midweek win over Southern Mississippi before taking two of three from North Florida at home. Starting pitcher Jacob Noble, who has a 90-plus fastball, has a 1.57 ERA in 23 innings, while closer Kyle Bartsch  has been terrific so far this season with an unblemished earned-run average in six appearances.

Troy (11-3): The Trojans had another solid week on the diamond, and continue to look like a team destined to compete for the Sun Belt regular season crown. Outfielder Danny Collins leads the nation in hitting with a .511 batting average, while third baseman Logan Pierce isn't too far behind with a .439 average, a home run and 15 RBIs.

Arkansas State (10-5): The Red Wolves are coming off a good week and are yet another team capable of winning the Sun Belt title this spring. Chandler Hawkins, who has six appearances on the mound, one of them a start, leads the pitching staff with a 0.57 ERA in 15 2/3 innings, while Logan Uxa leads the offense with a .355 average, a home run and 10 RBIs.

Austin Peay State (13-2): The Governors have a very solid ace pitcher, prospect Lee Ridenhour, who has a 2.01 ERA in 22 1/3 innings of work, while the offense is potent this spring with Cody Hudson and Jordan Hankins leading the charge. Hudson is hitting .417 with a home run and 16 RBIs, while Hankins is hitting .375 with two homers and 12 RBIs.

College of Charleston (10-6): The Cougars dropped a tough series two weekends ago, but bounced back in impressive fashion over the weekend with a series win over Elon. Matt Pegler (1.01, 26.2) is having a terrific season thus far on the mound, Gunnar Heidt leads the offense with a .323 batting average, a home run and 13 RBIs.

The Citadel (10-6): The Bulldogs seem to be heating up, as they took care of business at home last weekend against Samford. The Citadel has an outstanding reliever in David Rivera, who has yet to allow a run in 11 appearances, while Hughston Armstrong is an intriguing hitter with a .407 average and .467 OBP so far this spring.

UNC Wilmington (9-6): Things have been a little touch and go at times this season for the Seahawks, but they picked up an impressive series win over VCU at home this past weekend. UNC starting pitcher Jordan Ramsey has been solid so far this season with a 1.91 ERA in 28 1/3 innings of work, while offensively, Michael Bass leads the way, hitting .389 with four doubles, a triple, three homers and nine RBIs.

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