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Key storylines as Mountain West baseball tournament kicks off in Reno

Wes Hatton
Wes Hatton, right, and the Wolf Pack take on Fresno State in the first round of the MW Tournament on Thursday. (John Byrne/Nevada athletics)

The Mountain West baseball tournament begins Thursday at Peccole Park with No. 2 seed San Diego State taking on No. 3 UNLV at 2 p.m. and No. 1 Fresno State and No. 4 Nevada scheduled for a 6:30 p.m. first pitch. Here is a look at the key storylines heading into the tournament, with the winner getting an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.

Is Fresno State already in the NCAA?

The MW hasn't had an NCAA Regional at-large team since UNLV in 2014, so we're talking a four-year drought, the longest in the conference's history. But Fresno State is in good position heading into this year's event. Ranked in the Top 25, the Bulldogs are 37th in the RPI, which should be good enough even if Fresno State goes 0-2 this week. The Bulldogs (35-14-1) don't have a great non-conference strength of schedule (140) and is just 1-3 in Quad 1 games while being 27-7-1 in lower-tier Quad 3/4 games. The 2015 Nevada baseball team learned what can happen when you go 0-2 at the MW Tournament. The Wolf Pack was 41-13 entering the event and was left out of the NCAA Tournament after its two-and-out tournament showing. Nevada entered that event with an RPI of 34 but dropped to 59 following its two losses. Fresno State is in better shape, but probably could use at least one win this week to secure its spot in the 64-team field.

Can Nevada snap its drought?

Of the four teams in this year's event, Nevada has the longest NCAA Regional drought. Its last Regional appearance was 2000 when future big-leaguers Chad Qualls, Ryan Church, Darrell Rasner and Joe Inglett were on the team. Ryan Anderson, the Wolf Pack's projected starter in its opener, was in diapers the last time Nevada reached a Regional. The other three teams in the field have appeared in at least four NCAA Regionals since Nevada's last appearance there. Since 2000, San Diego State has appeared in six Regionals (last in 2018); Fresno State seven Regionals (last in 2012); and UNLV four Regionals (last in 2014). Nevada's initial challenge (vs. Fresno State) will be stiff. The Bulldogs are 20-4 in their last 24 games, have won 10 straight away from home and swept Nevada at Peccole Park earlier this month. Nevada also has lost five straight MW Tournament games.

Will SDSU continue its dominance?

There's a good measure of luck when you get into postseason baseball at any level, but it's hard to say San Diego State has been lucky of late. Really, they've been dominant. The Aztecs have won five of the last six MW Tournaments, the only miss coming in 2016 when New Mexico won as the host team. SDSU even has its lucky seed this year. The Aztecs' last three conference tournament crowns have come as the second seed, and that's the seed SDSU enters this year's event with. (Its other two wins came as the No. 3 seed). SDSU's run has been remarkable. Since 2013, the Aztecs are 14-1 in conference tournament elimination games. The path has been a little easier the last two seasons as SDSU won three straight to win the 2018 title and also reached the championship game out of the winners bracket in 2017.

Can UNLV salvage its season?

The Rebels' NCAA Regional drought hasn't been nearly as long as Nevada's, last making the field in 2014 as an at-large team. But the Rebels' program has fallen a couple of levels in recent years. Since 2006, UNLV has just one Regional berth and only four winnings campaigns in 13 full seasons. The Rebels enter this tournament 27-27, so it most likely must win the event to post a winning record in 2019. UNLV enters the event losers of four straight and is 2-7 over its last nine contests and 4-10 over its last 14. The Rebels aren't playing their best ball under former Nevada assistant coach Stan Stolte, who is 106-119 overall and 52-68 in the MW in four seasons, but a run this week could salvage a season that started off pretty well.

Top draft prospects in town

The tournament will showcase two potential first-round MLB draft picks. UNLV shortstop Bryson Stott hit .361 with 10 homers and 36 RBIs this season, although the reason he's so highly regarded is his elite defense. He also led the MW in on-base percentage (.489) and slugging percentage (.615) and could be the conference's first first-round draft pick since 2015 when Fresno State catcher Taylor Ward was the last pick of the first round. Fresno State pitcher Ryan Jensen also is a potential first-round draft pick, although he'll more likely slot into the second round. Jensen's fastball can hit 99 miles per hour and he is 10-1 with a 3.09 ERA in 2019. Although he has a smaller frame (6-foot, 180 pounds), he's had a breakout junior season after not even being listed as one of the top-10 draft prospects in the conference by Baseball America heading into the season.

Will the weather hold up?

The last time Nevada held the MW baseball tournament was 2015 and it rained the entire event. Looking at this week's forecast, we might not see the sun much. We could see some rain delays, which would be a shame. You don't want external issues having an impact on the final outcomes, but ominous clouds are in the forecast. We also could see a lot of runs as it's been windy the last few days and that wind is almost always blowing out at Peccole Park. “I wasn’t here for that," Bruce said of the 2015 tournament. "I’m looking at the weather. It’s going to be a little dicey at times, but we know how that can turn here. I’m expecting some big crowds, I’m expecting the community to come out and support. It’s a great tribute to our fan base and community. Reno’s such a special place and we get to show it off this weekend.”

Games live on Nevada Sports Net

In case you can't make it to Peccole Park, NSN will televise and stream the games live. Here's a look at the schedule

Thursday

San Diego State vs. UNLV – 2 p.m. (televised and streamed on our website)

Nevada vs. Fresno State – 6:30 p.m. (televised and streamed on our website)

Friday

Game 3 TBD – 2 p.m. (televised and streamed on our website)

Game 4 TBD – 6:30 p.m. (streamed on our website; Giants game on TV)

Saturday

Game 5 TBD – 6:30 p.m. (streamed on our website; Aces game on TV)

Sunday

Game 6, if necessary – 1 p.m. (televised and streamed on our website)

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