UNLV baseball:

Brothers help power what Rebels hope will be program-changing season

Senior Patrick Armstrong and sophomore Joey Armstrong are part of a UNLV lineup that has coach Tim Chambers fired up

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Brothers and UNLV baseball players Patrick, left, and Joey Armstrong horse around while having their photo taken during a media availability day Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014.

2014 UNLV Baseball

From left, UNLV baseball players Erick Fedde, Eric van Meetren and John Richy juggle a baseball with their feet and gloves during a media availability day Tuesday, Feb 11, 2014. Launch slideshow »

They’re different players, and on this everyone can agree. Older brother Patrick Armstrong, a senior first baseman, is the top returning hitter in the Mountain West while younger brother Joey Armstrong will trot out for Friday’s opening day at home as UNLV’s starting center fielder after a freshman season at third base.

Infield vs. outfield; power vs. speed. Comparing these two disparate talents doesn’t make a lot of sense except that they have the same last name and one wouldn’t be here without the other, so how could you not ask the question?

Who’s the better baseball player?

In this regard, there’s close to a consensus. It’s been so clear since their travel ball days that even the older brother doesn’t mind saying it out loud.

“He knows he’s better, and I’ll admit it,” Patrick Armstrong said. “… I like to take credit for him being so good because me and all my friends used to beat up on him.”

In fact, it was the little brother who landed both guys at UNLV in the first place. Joey Armstrong, a league MVP at quarterback and do-everything baseball player in Northern California, committed to UNLV after other schools were scared away by a knee injury. At the same time, Patrick Armstrong was nearing the end of middling two-year career at Sacramento City College.

With a .262 batting average in his sophomore season, Patrick Armstrong had few options other than an offer to come be his brother’s keeper. It’s worked out just fine for all involved, including UNLV coach Tim Chambers.

“We got his brother to come protect him. (Patrick) wasn’t very good,” Chambers said, “and he ended up being our best hitter and second in the Mountain West. Baseball’s a crazy game.”

Now both Armstrongs are preseason all-league picks heading into a season that has Chambers ready to jump out of his cleats. The Rebels are coming off a breakthrough 37-20 campaign that ended without a postseason berth, something the team is ready to rectify.

Entering his fourth season, these are all Chambers’ players now. He seems less concerned about their abilities on the diamond than their propensity for going dangerously full bore in practice.

“I’ve been doing this 27 years, and I’ve never had a team like this that goes as fast and hard as they do,” Chambers said. “I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am. I think we’re in for a big year.

“It’s not acceptable to be average or (crappy) anymore.”

Major League Baseball scouts will be a mainstay at Earl E. Wilson Stadium this season, starting with this weekend’s opening series against Central Michigan. Most of that attention will be for Friday’s junior starting pitcher, Erick Fedde, a Las Vegas High grad projected to go in the first two rounds of June’s MLB Draft.

But while they’re here, they may also notice Arbor View High grad Zack Hartman, who returns from Tommy John surgery hoping to regain his first-team all-league form from 2012. Or shortstop Matt McCallister, a preseason all-Mountain West selection by the Perfect Game scouting service.

And, of course, the Armstrongs. Patrick Armstrong is expected to be the primary first baseman with a few designated hitter assignments. Joey Armstrong moves from everyday third baseman to everyday center fielder.

Joey Armstrong had never played third base before he came to UNLV, but Mark Shannon was entrenched in center and there was a need elsewhere.

The biggest difference in the way the brothers approach baseball is the mental aspect of the game. Patrick Armstrong hit .373 with seven home runs and 40 RBI last year because he’s always thinking ahead. Joey Armstrong is better at turning on an inside pitch, or playing defense, when he stops thinking so much. That’s part of the reason he’s so excited to go to the outfield, his more natural position.

“The infield is unreal,” Joey Armstrong said. “I think too much in the infield, but when I’m in center field I can be free. It’s nice to let your ability take over.”

The Natural and The Thinker grew up under the same roof, and now they’ll often be listed back-to-back on the lineup card. What excites them most is the belief every Rebel has that this is going to be a special, program-changing season.

Doing that alongside a brother only makes it better.

“It’s unbelievable how all this worked out,” Joey Armstrong said. “I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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