Thursday, May 24, 2012 | 2 a.m.
It turns out there is a tangible cost for victory, and in UNLV’s case, that price is one iPhone.
On May 6, with the Rebels (26-29, 7-17) in the heat of a race for the final spot in this weekend’s four-team Mountain West Conference baseball tournament in Las Vegas, UNLV scored four runs in the ninth inning for a crucial 5-4 victory at San Diego State.
Up until that final inning, the game resembled several of UNLV’s losses from a season that wasn’t going nearly as well as the Rebels expected. They were banged up, and a base-running blunder — pinch runner Casey Sato was picked off at first base on a 3-1 count with two outs and a runner on third — ended a once-promising eighth inning.
The season could have ended right there, but Daniel Higa led off the ninth with a solo home run, and with the help of a few Aztec mistakes, the Rebels held on for the win.
“When we won that game, that told us that they hadn’t quit on us, and that was the most important thing for the whole season. We didn’t know if they had quit or not,” UNLV coach Tim Chambers said. “When Casey got picked off, they could have said, ‘Ah, screw it. We’re never going to win.’”
But they didn’t, and the dugout celebration when the Rebels tied the game saw Chambers’ iPhone fly to the ground where Sato, who had been sulking after getting picked off, jumped off the bench and accidentally put his spike right through it.
Chambers is still updating the contacts on his new iPhone, which he’ll have on him when UNLV opens tournament play at home Thursday night at 7 against top-seeded New Mexico. San Diego State and TCU play at 3 p.m. in the first game of the double-elimination tournament that goes through Saturday with another game on Sunday if necessary.
Phones have been important down the stretch for UNLV. The coaches used them for scoreboard watching during conference games, keeping a close eye on Air Force, which finished 5-19 in conference play and was the only team in the conference to not make the tournament.
UNLV didn’t clinch a spot as the fourth seed until last Thursday, when the Falcons lost to the Lobos 22-4. That allowed Chambers and the Rebels to breathe a little easier knowing at least they wouldn’t miss the tournament when it’s on their home diamond.
This has been a very difficult year for Chambers. It’s the first sub-.500 season of his professional career — “When I was 23, I was a JV coach and I was 9-9,” he said — and he insists the team isn’t as bad as its record indicates. There were injuries, but another problem has been some in-fighting among players.
“I didn’t realize coming in that the age gap was such a big factor,” Chambers said. “The team just never gelled. We had guys not like each other and guys not liking the coaches because they thought we were negative.”
The older players, many of whom Chambers has had for four years as they followed him from the College of Southern Nevada, thought the freshmen were immature. The separate groups didn’t hang out off the diamond, and it was affecting their chemistry on it. Heading into the tournament, Chambers said he believes those problems are behind him.
About five weeks ago, he held meetings — individual and group — with all of his players and coaches and let loose. He gave everybody an open forum and tried to let everything out so that both sides could move forward in a positive direction.
Since then, the Rebels haven’t exactly been world-beaters, but they are 9-8 in the last month, which includes victories against New Mexico, San Diego State and a road sweep at co-WAC champion Sacramento State.
UNLV is feeling good about itself right now. Chambers said he hadn’t seen the dugout completely get behind each other until that ninth inning against the Aztecs, and after that they haven’t looked back. Erick Fedde, a freshman from Las Vegas High, pitched the next game against the Lobos, a 7-4 victory, and he’ll get the start again Thursday. The team is mostly healthy, they’re playing at home, and if they need any reason to believe they can pull off an upset, they need only look across the diamond.
Last year New Mexico had just 16 victories heading into the tournament but reeled off four straight wins on its way to the NCAA Tournament. UNLV was lucky to make the tournament, and now that it’s here the Rebels can play with nothing to lose.
And if they get into any tight spots, Chambers could always throw his phone on the ground and call in a pinch stomper to put a spike through it.
“I’ll break an iPhone for every game we can win right now,” Chambers joked. “You can break them all, I don’t care.”