Bracket Busters: Nevada Works to Make History
Nevada is making history this season. By sweeping Fresno State on the road last weekend, the Wolf Pack stretched their conference winning streak to 11 games, their longest stretch going back to 1973, the first year such data was collected for the program.
The sweep of Fresno also pushed Nevada’s lead in the Mountain West Conference to two-and-a-half games over San Diego State, Air Force and Nevada-Las Vegas, which are all in a virtual tie for second place.
With Nevada off this weekend, only next weekend’s four-game series with San Jose State, which is 2-12 in conference and 6-22 overall, stands in the way of the Wolf Pack capturing the MWC regular-season title. With no conference tournament in the MWC this season, the regular-season title brings with it the automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
“Our job as a (coaching) staff was just to be the tour guide,” Nevada coach T.J. Bruce said. “Their job is to take the keys of the car and run with it and they’ve really done that, so it’s been really fun to watch.”
Nevada is no stranger to winning regular-season championships, as this would be its third in the last six full seasons. It won one in 2015 when current Arizona coach Jay Johnson was at the helm and then another in 2018 under Bruce.
Both of those seasons ended with exits in the MWC Tournament and no at-large bid, though, so history would be made with an automatic bid this season. It would be the first time in regionals for the Wolf Pack since 2000, when they had a rotation featuring two future big leaguers in Chad Qualls and Darrell Rasner and a lineup led by another future big leaguer in Ryan Church.
And if they can get there, this is a team that can wear out a pitching staff, which is particularly pertinent in regional play, when pitching staffs are almost universally tapped by the time the weekend is over.
In conference play, the Wolf Pack are hitting .334/.411/.554 with 41 home runs, all of which are at least tied for the best mark in the conference, in 27 games. You would be right to point out that the Mountain West Conference is full of good offensive environments, but they are also hitting .311/.384/.513 overall with 53 homers in 39 games, so it’s not as if the numbers fall off the table when they step out of conference.
History has been made on offense for Nevada as well, as infielder Tyler Bosetti recently broke the NCAA Division I record for consecutive games with a home run, with nine. His emergence has been a huge catalyst for the Wolf Pack during this recent hot streak.
His average was sitting at .254 and he had zero home runs as the month of April began. Now, he’s hitting .333/.392/.667 with 11 homers, including a .383/.448/.800 line in MWC games, all while serving as the team’s leadoff hitter and a versatile defensive player who can handle second base, third base or shortstop, if needed.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Bruce said of the Bosetti homer streak. “Everybody knows locally, if you were to see Tyler work, you’re not surprised. You’re not surprised by the work he’s putting in in the cage. He’s in a cage this morning (and) we’re off today. He was in the cage before I got here, he’ll be in the cage after I leave.”
Amazingly, though, there’s a real argument to be made that he’s not even Nevada’s hottest hitter. That honor might have to go to first baseman Dillan Shrum. The fifth-year senior has been limited to just 17 conference games this season, but in those games, he’s hitting .492/.553/.908. He’s currently on a nine-game hitting streak, during which he has four three-hit games.
With a .434/.480/.840 overall line, 14 doubles and nine home runs in 29 games this season, Shrum is on pace for a career year in Reno, even as he has been a productive player in his first four seasons on campus.
“Dillan has leaned on his experience,” Bruce said. “He’s been around a long, long time. He’s really comfortable in his own skin. I thought for a long time (that) he was his own worst enemy, as a lot of players or coaches are. You get in your way, and he’s learned how to stay out of his own way, meaning he’s learned how to learn from his failures and his successes, and he’s just believed so much in himself and it’s so good to see.”
Third-year sophomore center fielder Dario Gomez, a junior college transfer, has been a catalyst all season as well. He’s hitting .402/.428/.610 with a team-leading 10 stolen bases, and his average rises to .412 in conference games.
Infielder Joshua Zamora is tied with Bosetti for the team lead in homers with 11 and is the only Nevada hitter to have more walks (18) than strikeouts (14) in conference games.
The team is a bit more vulnerable on the mound, with a 5.50 team ERA, but context is important. For one, that’s the second-best mark in the MWC, behind only Nevada-Las Vegas’ 5.16 ERA, and Nevada’s 5.00 ERA in conference games is the best in the league.
Along the way, true freshman righthander Cam Walty (4-3, 4.15) has emerged as the Wolf Pack’s most reliable starting pitcher. Last weekend against Fresno State, he allowed just one unearned run in seven innings. The week prior, he allowed just two runs and struck out nine in seven innings against UNLV.
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Walty’s performance against the Bulldogs was part of a big weekend for the pitching staff, as they allowed just nine total runs in the sweep on the road, evidence that things are perhaps cresting at the right time on the mound.
“Giving up nine runs, you’d sign up for that in a weekend in our league all day, every day,” Bruce said. “I think just what you’ve seen (with) our team as a whole is that we’ve just continued to get better and I think that’s part of the process.”
The fact that Nevada is even in this position is kind of amazing given some of the adversity it has dealt with this season. After winning a series with Cal Poly to begin the season, it lost four of its next five series, with three of those series losses coming in MWC play.
It has also had to endure two extended breaks due to Covid-19. Because San Jose State delayed its season until late March, Nevada lost its early-season series with the Spartans, which forced the Pack off the field after its game on March 2 until March 12. Another roughly 10-day break occurred when it lost a series against New Mexico in mid April.
But just before that second break, Nevada found its turning point. It played a pair of midweek games on the road against Texas. It lost them both, but both were one-run games. It was made clear at that point that the Wolf Pack could compete with those types of teams.
“I think it seems like the turning point, just in the schedule, were the two games at Texas,” Bruce said. “I thought we should at least (have) walked away with one win there.”
Nevada is now in the midst of its third extended break of the season, but this one is simply schedule-induced, as this weekend was always scheduled as an open weekend before it wraps up the regular season with the series against San Jose State next weekend. At this point, though, these breaks are old hat.
“The first (break) was a little funny,” Bruce said. “You’re like ‘well, what do we do with this time?’ The second time ‘OK, here’s what we’re going to do.’ And then this time, a little bit of the same. Not that you ever perfect it, but you’ve experienced it before, you’ve critiqued it and made some adjustments.”
Leaning on the team’s experience is a theme for Bruce and his staff, and in this case, they are able to lean on the experience not only of being forced into breaks a couple of times already this season, but also lean on the experience of the players in the program, many of whom were around in 2018, when they fell just short of a regional bid. They hope that plays a role in changing the outcome this time around.