Don Starks of the Mountain West sports blog Mountain West Connection was gracious enough to answer some of our questions heading into today's midweek duel between Arizona State and UNLV. The longtime MWC baseball writer's answers are below.
House of Sparky: After starting the season 12-20, UNLV is 10-5 over its past 15 games (including a win at ASU a few weeks back). What has sparked this turnaround?
Don Starks: The Rebels have been a bit of an enigma this year. I thought they might do something this season as they beat Texas in extra innings in the first game of the season, but itt was not to be. They have just two .300 hitters in Payton Squier (expected) and freshman Kyle Isbel (unexpected). A team batting average of .266 usually doesn't get much done. The emergence of Isbel has been a pleasant surprise as he has a .326 average with one home run and 23 RBIs (which is second on the team). He is the reigning Player of the Week in the MWC so he has really emerged. To me, the big failure, or disappointment, is the pitching. A case in point has to be Blaze Bohall. I expected him to be one of the leaders in the Mountain West this season but his performance hasn't been there. He is 2-2 with a 10.74 ERA in 31 innings; so it's not like he hasn't had his chances. The team ERA is 5.61 so that along with the underwhelming team batting average makes you wonder how, indeed, they have gone 10-5 in the last 15 games.
Oh, about that. They played New Mexico, the leader in the Mountain West, this past weekend at home, and took two of three. I didn't see that coming. They took two of three from San Jose State on the road but the Spartans are the worst team in the conference. UNLV then won one of three games against Cal State Fullerton (no shame there) and split two against UC Irvine. That’s a fair record in those games with the New Mexico series win being the biggest so, the team will be heading into this game on a high.
HoS: The Rebels started Cody Roper on the mound in that victory against the Sun Devils, and the right-hander pitched well after running into some trouble in the opening frame. Do you expect Roper to get the start tonight? (Update: Roper is starting)
DS: Hmm. The weekend guys have at least eleven starts which leaves only midweek games for the rest of the staff. Of the rest, Roper and Bohall have the most starts. I don't see Bohall toeing the rubber in this one so, yeah, probably Roper but some coaches like to give a bunch of arms an inning each. But I think the Rebels want this one.
HoS: Offensively, which players should ASU fans be wary of from UNLV?
DS: As I said in your first question, Squier and Isbel. Justin Jones and Corey Poole supply the pop but neither hit with much consistency. Keep an eye on Isbel as he's a budding star. Jones is the weird one. He has five home runs but is hitting in the low .200s - go figure. All of those guys should be in the starting lineup tonight.
HoS: What are the crowds at Wilson Stadium typically like? Anything that will intimidate the maroon and gold?
DS: In a word, no. I suspect that the crowd might be about 1,000 or less. They are not known for being loud or into the game much. Fresno State has the best baseball fans in terms of numbers and noise. The Mountain West doesn't support baseball very well in my estimation. The attendance for UNLV's rubber game Sunday against New Mexico was 436 just to give you an idea.
HoS: Prediction for tonight's game? And the rest of UNLV's season as a whole?
DS: This looks like a ASU win to me but UNLV has been surprising all year. They’ve beaten some good to great teams and still are just hanging around .500 overall. It’s hard to bet against the Pac-12 when playing a mid-major but a pitcher who’s on his game can silence a team. Besides, the Sun Devils are probably still thinking "How’d we lose to these guys?" the first time around.
The Rebels play a good Fresno State team and a hot Nevada club to finish the regular season. I see them going .500 in those games but not climbing over any team to make it into the top three in the standings. They are just a very average team.
First pitch from Las Vegas is set for 6:05 p.m. Fans not in attendance can view the game on Rebel TV.