Just how good is the Nevada baseball team?
That question will be answered at this week's Stanford Regional. The Wolf Pack has been two different teams this season.
There's been the team that destroyed the Mountain West, winning a school-record 15 straight conference games to end the season and secure an NCAA Tournament berth. And there's been the team that hasn't won a non-conference game since the first week of the season, a stretch of more than 14 weeks that includes eight straight non-league losses.
Now, it's not totally fair to base Nevada's overall strength on its non-league schedule considering the quality of opponent the Wolf Pack challenged itself with, including games with Texas, Arizona State, UCLA, USC and Cal Poly (the only non-conference opponent Nevada beat this season). The Wolf Pack's non-conference strength of schedule ranked 24th in the nation.
But it's also not fair to completely ignore the non-league struggles. Nevada hasn't won a non-conference game since February. That's a long time. But the Wolf Pack team that buzz-sawed through the MW? That team was a beast. After a slow start to the conference season, Nevada ripped off 15 straight wins against league foes. In nine of those games, the Wolf Pack scored double-figures. In six of them, Nevada run-ruled its opponents, ending the game before the full nine innings.
It is arguably the most impressive run of games in program history and came after coach TJ Bruce told his team it had to go 13-2 to close the season to win the MW.
"And they rattled off 15 straight wins," Bruce said. "I don't care what league you're in. I don't care where you're playing. Any league is tough. to win your league and get through it that way is really impressive and a tribute to the gentlemen playing this game."
We must point out Nevada is 0-5 against NCAA Tournament teams with two losses to Arizona State, two losses to Texas and one to UCLA. But this also is a Wolf Pack team that lost by just one run twice to Texas in Austin, and the Longhorns are the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. You don't play a game to lose closely, but Nevada stood toe-to-toe with one of the nation's best. It's also been blown out by some quality opponents, losing three games to USC, two to Arizona State and one to UCLA by a combined 28 runs (4.7 per game).
That gets us back to the original question: Just how good is the Wolf Pack? Honestly, I don't know. But we're about to find out.
It didn't draw an easy regional, which includes Stanford and UC Irvine, two top-20 teams, as well as North Dakota State. The Wolf Pack opens the tournament Friday against the Anteaters, who won 40 games out of the Big West. This is the kind of opportunity Nevada, winners of 14 of its last 16 games, is craving. It wants to prove the MW winning streak is no mirage, no fluke from a team coming out of a one-bid conference.
"I've never been a part of any run like this," said Bruce, who had assistant-coaching stints at powers Long Beach State and UCLA. "We've obviously won some games, but I've never been a part of a run like this."
Bruce said the Wolf Pack's tough non-league schedule prepares it for a tournament setting, even if it didn't yield many wins. Nevada won't be faced with a level of competition it hasn't seen this season. That hasn't kept Bruce from playing the "us against the world" card.
"The best part is nobody is talking about Nevada," Bruce said. "We're a top-25 offense. We're a top-25 defense. We have the NCAA leader in batting average and not one word was said to us, so there will be a little chip on our shoulder to put some respect on the University of Nevada."
You must respect the Wolf Pack offense. Yes, Nevada has hit at altitude most of the season. But the team can still rake. This is a squad that's scored 7.4 runs per game, including 10.1 per contest over its last 16.
"Our team is unique," Bruce said. "The one thing about our team is we can bang. We've shown we can do that. We've shown we can come from behind. We've shown we can win a close game. Going back to where I come from (Long Beach State), that was always what we wanted our teams to be like, and that's what I think this team is. If we have to get in a 2-1 game and we have to drag and push and squeeze (bunt) and do different things, we can do that. If you want to get into a slugfest, we can do that, too."
Nevada's bats have been tamed by its non-league foes, with the Wolf Pack averaging just 4.8 runs per game in its 12 non-conference contests (in which it went 3-9). That's a stark comparison to the team's 8.5 runs per game against MW opponents. Nevada's pitching also has been much better against MW teams (5.5 runs allowed per game) than against non-league opponents (6.8 runs allowed per game) despite the disadvantage of playing at altitude in the MW.
It's clear this season has shown two separate Wolf Pack baseball teams. But Nevada isn't so concerned in the stats. This senior-laden team believes it's destined for bigger things.
"The belief in themselves," Bruce said when asked why this group broke Nevada's 21-year NCAA Tournament drought. "The just believed in each other. That's the biggest deal. None of the coaches are playing. We stressed that, and I got this from (Eric Musselman) a long time ago: You have to be a player-led program. These guys do that. A lot of them come in with suggestions. A lot of them, we just talk the game in the dugout, and I'm behind them all the way and have the best seat in the house."
With the stakes being ramped up, Bruce is trying to keep his team loose, saying that's the biggest key to success this weekend. Nobody on Nevada's roster has played in an NCAA Regional before. Bruce has coached in a regional seven times prior, all as an assistant coach. He admits the feeling this year is different now that he's a head coach. He likes being the underdog as opposed to the favorite as he was as an assistant at UCLA. And while some might have doubts on just how good Nevada is given its conference versus non-conference résumé, Bruce isn't one of them.
"We're not done," he said confidently.
Columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.