Tournament time in Sin City

1. TCU Horned Frogs

(35-21, 17-5 MWC)

Before the season had even begun, TCU was the team to beat in this conference. In their first year in the MWC, the Horned Frogs came in with a healthy baseball tradition and did not disappoint, winning the regular season championship.

The Frogs lost just one series in conference play, and were by far the best pitching team in the conference. Their 4.22 team ERA was more than a full run better than the nearest competitor. Jake Arietta is the top hurler in the MWC, going 12-4 this year with a blistering 2.07 ERA.

Of course, their hitting wasn’t bad, either.

Junior Chad Huffman is one of many contenders for conference player of the year after hitting .386 with a conference-best .734 slugging percentage to go along with 60 RBI.

To make matters even more difficult for the rest of the field, TCU enters the MWC Tournament having won seven in a row and nine of its last 10.

2. BYU Cougars

(30-26, 14-8 MWC)

They got plenty of help to do it, but a late-season surge catapulted BYU into the No. 2 spot for this week’s tourney. New Mexico slumped at just the right time, leaving the door open for the Cougars. They capitalized, taking two of three from San Diego State last weekend and pulling off a clean sweep of the Utes this week to push their record to 14-8.

Those wins over the Aztecs proved especially meaningful, as they were the difference in the tiebreaker between BYU and SDSU.

The Cougars aren’t the most statistically impressive team, but they definitively proved that stats don’t mean everything. All they did was win-and win consistently-for the last two months of the year following early season struggles.

One thing that could make them especially dangerous is the long ball, as BYU boasts two of the top home-run hitters in the conference in the middle of the lineup. Ben Saylor led the MWC with 19 round-trippers, while Jeff Hiestand was tied for fourth with 13.

3. San Diego State Aztecs

(22-34, 14-8 MWC)

The club that U head coach Bill Kinneberg called “the most talented team in the conference” overcame a porous non-conference start and wound up tied for the second-best record in the league. Still, the Aztecs are near the bottom of the MWC in nearly every category, proving once again that numbers often lie.

Late in the year, SDSU took two of three from eventual conference champ TCU and did the same against UNLV. And then there was the May 5 meeting with Air Force, where the Aztecs showed exactly what they are capable of, despite their erraticism.

Facing the weakest team in the league, the Aztecs brought the hammer down, annihilating the Falcons 36-11. Nick Romero drove in six runs and Lance Zawadki went 7-for-7 with five RBI to lead an SDSU offense that pounded out 26 hits and drew 12 walks.

That performance, of course, wasn’t the norm for San Diego State, but all the pieces are there.

4. UNLV Rebels

(27-28, 12-10 MWC)

The top-hitting team in the conference could be one of the most dangerous for that very reason. Daniel Stovall and Chris Carlson rank 1-2 in the league in RBI, while Jordan Pacheco has scored a league-best 71 runs to go along with a .351 average.

The bottom line is the Rebels are stacked offensively, but their pitching staff has kept them from being a more dangerous squad.

However, UNLV ended the season in strong fashion, winning its last eight conference games to overtake New Mexico for fourth place. And while it doesn’t have any bearing on the MWC, the Rebels also took two of three from Pac-10 power Arizona earlier this month.

5. New Mexico Lobos

(28-27, 10-12 MWC)

Things were going perfectly well for the Lobos until the last three or four weeks of the season. They lost seven in a row starting at the end of April, defeated BYU once, then lost seven more to close the season.

After starting out with a 9-4 conference record, the Lobos dropped eight of their last nine MWC games-including their final six.

Overall, New Mexico proved they can put runs on the board-scoring the second-most runs in the league-but the final month was an out-and-out disaster. Doing any damage in the tournament will require a complete 360.

6. Utah Utes

(27-26, 9-13 MWC)

The numbers simply don’t add up. The Utes finished second in the league in hitting, second in the league in pitching?and yet somehow finished near the bottom of a very crowded conference.

Much of that could be credited to a bit of a late-season slide, which culminated in a three-game sweep at the hands of the rival BYU Cougars over the weekend. Utah also lost home series to both TCU and New Mexico to fall to sixth. However, the team still has the benefits of perhaps the frontrunner for conference player of the year, shortstop Ryan Khoury-a .432 hitter who drove in 51 runs from the leadoff spot this year. He heads up a lineup that also includes two-time all-conference junior Jay Brossman (.352, 49 RBI), Bret Baldwin (.342, 25 RBI) and John Welsh (.335, 40 RBI).

All year, the Utes have proven they can beat solid competition-it just hasn’t happened on a consistent enough basis.

7. Air Force Falcons

(10-36, 1-21 MWC)

As expected, Air Force slipped to the bottom of the league in almost every respect, winning just one league game all season. The Falcons’ one conference win was their first attempt, a 6-4 win over New Mexico in the MWC’s “preseason” tournament in late March.

As a whole, Air Force hit just .251 as a team and had a bloated team ERA of 10.57.