On Sunday, Nevada lost 6-4 to San Jose State — the same team the Wolf Pack beat by 25 runs the day before. As I filmed for Wolf Pack TV, and I carried my camera back to storage after the game, a Nevada fan said to me, “I hope you weren’t filming that embarrassment.”
At its best, Nevada averages more runs per game than Brian Polian’s offense scores, but how can it manage just four runs against the Spartans, who are in last place in the Mountain West, a sub-par baseball conference?
Nevada has many bad losses — two against San Jose State, one to UC Davis, one to San Francisco. Those blemishes make me believe Nevada will not make a run in the NCAA Tournament this year.
Winning college baseball games in the playoffs is about consistency, depth and guts. Nevada has plenty of guts. It is probably one of the scrappiest teams west of the Mississippi, but it lacks consistency on the mound, depth in the batter’s box and confidence in the field.
All year, head coach Jay Johnson has talked about depth in his pitching staff. The Wolf Pack has plenty of guys that can come out of the bullpen and get outs. I don’t doubt that one bit, but who is Nevada’s dominant Friday starter? Who is the guy that can eat innings each outing and give the bullpen a rest?
Most SEC, Pac-12, Big 12 and ACC teams have that guy. He’s the guy who will go in the first or second round of the draft this May. He’ll pitch in Omaha and then probably pitch in the big leagues a few months later. Nevada doesn’t have that guy with a 88-96 mile-per-hour fastball and a nasty breaking ball. Combined, Nevada starters are 17-9 with a 4.36 ERA. Those aren’t bad numbers at all, but let’s compare them with another first-place team, UCLA. The Bruins are in first place in the Pac-12 with a 31-9 (16-5 Pac-12) record, which is pretty comparable to Nevada’s 33-11 (18-5 MW). UCLA’s starting pitchers have a combined record of 24-7 with an ERA of 2.50. The Bruins have arms that can throw once a week and dominate, even in a conference as competitive as the Pac-12.
You might say all you need to do to win is score more runs than you allow, and Nevada scores a boatload of runs. That is true, but does the Wolf Pack consistently score runs?
Offensively, Nevada is stacked, except it lacks depth. Stevenson, Howell, Byler, Brooks, Meyer and Greager have all been hot at times, and when they’re all hot they put up 20 runs per game. Howell and Byler are Nevada’s biggest producers. They’ve each started 44 out of 44 games, and they are both among the best in the nation with a bat.
But what happens when they aren’t hot? What happens when there’s nobody on base when Howell hits a home run? Solo home runs don’t win ball games. The Wolf Pack needs the bottom of the lineup to produce. It can’t rely on a few guys to score all the runs, even though that has worked for the team so far this year. It won’t cut it in the playoffs.
Howell and Kyle Hunt are first and third on the team with the most errors. The middle infield is supposed to be your best defensively. Bryce Greager, who often plays third base for the Wolf Pack, has the second most errors on the team with eight. Errors turn into runs, and Nevada can’t expect to not make plays and be successful in the postseason.
I commend coach Johnson for the way he moves players around defensively. Howell doesn’t even have a real position. He’s listed as a utility player on the roster, yet he and Hunt turned a highlight reel double play this weekend. Johnson knows who his best guys are and he puts them where they can make the biggest impact on the game and do the least damage.
Nevada will most likely be a No. 2 seed in the tournament. That means they will have to play a top 16 team in a regional and will probably have to beat them twice to advance. Nevada doesn’t have to be perfect in the postseason, seeing as the World Series champion can lose up to four games throughout the tournament without being eliminated, but they can’t score 27 runs in one game and then lose to a team like San Jose State the very next day. Johnson’s team can’t be an “embarrassment” on any day of the week if it expects to beat teams like UCLA, Texas A&M or LSU. Those teams will rip Nevada apart if the Wolf Pack shows up to play the way it did on Sunday.
Ryan Suppe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @SagebrushSports.