After the Nevada baseball team's series win at Air Force two weeks ago — a rare occurrence given the Wolf Pack's history in Colorado Springs — coach TJ Bruce told his players to enjoy it for a day but then delivered a stern message.
"I told them Sunday at Air Force, you're going to have start sweeping people," Bruce recalled. "That's really been the message. I'm pretty blunt and honest with our crew, but they've accepted it and rallied around each other."
After a slow start to Mountain West play — Nevada started 4-7 in conference action — the Wolf Pack put itself in a hole. But the team has slowly dug its way out and enters this weekend with the chance to sit in first place along in the conference standings heading into the homestretch. Nevada hosts rival UNLV at Peccole Park for a three-game series starting Saturday, and whichever team wins the series will be in first place barring a San Diego State sweep of San Jose State.
The Wolf Pack swept then-first-place SDSU last weekend, out-scoring the Aztecs, 42-13, in a three-game demolition that featured two 10-run-rule decisions. That pushed Nevada (12-9 in conference) within half a game of UNLV (11-7) and SDSU (14-10). Fresno State (13-12) also remains in the mix for the MW regular-season title, which is of extra importance this season because the league is not playing a conference tournament. Whichever team wins the MW regular season gets the automatic berth into the NCAA Regional.
Despite Nevada having 10 conference games remaining this season, the pressure is being ratcheted up with every contest.
"Looking at the league, this is a game seven for everybody," Bruce said. "You'll start seeing some different things. You'll see pitch counts be run up a little higher. The rule of thumb is you wait until the end of April or early May to push those pitch counts, and you'll see that now. It's time. Everybody is going to scratch and claw. Our RPI is pretty good. Our conference RPI is pretty good. We'll see if we could get an at-large, but with the (automatic qualifier) being the conference champion, the next three weeks will be huge for everybody. It's going to be fun."
Adding more intrigue to the Nevada-UNLV series is how tight the Silver State Series is. The Wolf Pack leads the all-sport competition over rival UNLV, 18-15, with only three sports remaining, including baseball, softball and track and field, as well as Academic Progress Report. But Bruce doesn't want his team to feel extra pressure given the rivalry element.
"With UNLV coming to town, it's a big deal and I understand it, but the other side of it is we have to check our emotions a little bit at the door," Bruce said. "We're trying to play the game. We are playing for first place. We're a half game behind first place. Whoever wins two out of three, depending upon what San Diego State does, is going to walk away in first place."
Nevada is coming off its best offensive series of the season as the Wolf Pack hit .420 against the Aztecs with at least 13 runs scored in each game. Nevada has pounded 20 of its 37 homers this season in its last five games (it had just 17 homers in its first 26 games).
"I don't know if I've been around an offensive weekend like that," Bruce said of the sweep of SDSU. "We hit 12 home runs in a weekend. The critics out there will say, 'You were hitting in thin air,' but if you were out at the park and saw some of these home runs, they would have been out of any park we played at all year. Our guys did a really good job, and this seems minor, controlling their breath and their emotions."
UNLV took two out of three games against Nevada in Las Vegas earlier this season and had won eight straight before losing to Air Force on Sunday. This game will mark a homecoming for Bishop Manogue High alum Rylan Charles, a freshman outfielder for the Rebels. Charles has appeared in 18 games (eight starts) this season and is hitting .308 with a .834 OPS. UNLV is led by former Nevada associate head coach, Stan Stolte. who was with the Wolf Pack for 14 season and has been UNLV's head coach since 2015.
Nevada's home games have been limited to friends and family only until this series when the Wolf Pack put a handful of tickets up for sale.
"We're in May, at home, at Peccole Park, playing for first place, I don't know what more we have to say to get everybody around this field and get people excited," Bruce said. "This is going to be a fun series, intense, but it's a lot like big-league baseball. If you're playing meaningful games in September, that's a good thing. We're playing meaningful games in May."
Despite a 12-13 overall record, Nevada has an outside chance of winning an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament even if it falls short of getting the MW's automatic berth. But the Wolf Pack has been snubbed in that respect the last couple of years, so it doesn't want to leave that decision up to the selection committee considering Nevada hasn't played in a Regional since 2000.
"This is really why you coach and play," Bruce said. "Nevada hasn't been in a Regional since 2000. Darrell Rasner has the last win in postseason play for Nevada. The writing is on the wall for our players. I don't think they need much more motivation than that. They know what's out there, and they know what's on the line. I'll trust that our guys will be ready to play."