By Tommy Rezac
It’s been 272 days since Nebraska beat Penn State 21-3 in State College, PA to clinch its first conference title since 2005.
“That’s so far in the past, I don’t roll seasons over,” Nebraska coach Darin Erstad said, who’s entering his seventh season in Lincoln. “It’s a whole new set of circumstances coming into this year, but I still get those goosebumps and that chill in the spine of your neck feeling. If that ever goes away, I’ll just get out of this game, but it’s not gone yet.”
The Huskers, picked to finish second in this year’s Big Ten Preseason Poll, will play four games this weekend; two against UC Riverside and two more against Washington State. The first game is against Riverside on Friday at 5 p.m. central.
Nebraska will then play a doubleheader Saturday with Washington State at 1 p.m. and UC Riverside again at 5 p.m. The series concludes with a 1 p.m. matinee against WSU on Sunday.
One of the biggest things Nebraska has stressed this offseason is offensive production. Sophomore outfielder Mojo Hagge was a big part of that last season, batting .277 as a freshman and starting in 49 games.
Hagge says the emphasis this offseason has been mostly on higher quality at-bats.
“Coach Erstad is just putting a little bit more emphasis on certain things we need to improve on,” Hagge said. “Last year, I specifically had a rough time with two strikes, so that’s something I’ve really had to work on this year. That was something he focused on with me.”
The Huskers ranked third in the Big Ten last year in hits (565), but ranked last in home runs (25).
Erstad wants to hit for power, but first and foremost, wants a solid on-base percentage.
“They know what they need to do to be successful,” Erstad said. “We’re going to see some very good pitchers the entire season, so we know the formula for getting that done, and we’d like to hit for some more power, absolutely, but more importantly we need to have better quality at-bats and get guys on base.”
Nebraska’s on-base percentage was .367 last year, which ranked 6th in the Big Ten.
When it comes to Nebraska’s pitching staff, the Huskers return 14 pitchers from the roster a year ago.
The starting rotation this weekend will be Luis Alvarado Friday, Jake McSteen for the first game Saturday, Nate Fisher on Saturday’s second game and Matt Warren taking the bump for the series finale on Sunday.
Warren, who earned his bachelor’s degree from Creighton in 2016, transferred to Nebraska and sat out all of 2017 as he recovered from Tommy John surgery.
The former Preseason Big East Co-Pitcher of the year hasn’t thrown live in 698 days.
“March 20, 2016,” Warren said. “That would have been the last time I threw live. I’m just going to try and remember what I had before, keep the breathing under control, not try and do too much and just kind of stay within myself.”
Warren finished his four-year stint at Creighton with 22 wins and a career 2.69 ERA; both rank fifth in school history.
Junior Chad Luensmann is out for the season, redshirt freshman Connor Curry is shelved for now and junior Zack Engleken is nearly back from injury.
Even with a few guys out, Erstad likes what he has available.
“I’m still very confident in what we have,” Erstad said. “Some of those guys are on pitch counts now, so who’s the true closer? Who’s the true get-out guy? Who’s the true setup guy? Right now, we’re just going to have to piece it together and see how it all looks.”
Each starter will throw around 90 pitches this weekend, according to Erstad.
Closer Look at the Opponents
Looking at this weekend’s opposition, the Highlanders of UC Riverside went 22-32 last year. Their head coach, Troy Percival, was actually a teammate of Darin Erstad’s on the L.A. Angels, and they used to go to Tempe Diablo Stadium for spring training as teammates. They were both key pieces in the Angels’ 2002 World Series title.
Pervical’s son Cole, who’s a freshman, will start on the mound against Nebraska on Saturday.
“You’re around (Cole) when he’s born, and now you’re going to face him in the Angels’ stadium for spring training, it’s pretty special,” Erstad said. “He’s a great kid and Percy is one of my best friends, so it’s always great to see him.”
Washington State meanwhile went 24-29 last year, including 10-20 in the Pac-12. The Cougars return junior infielder Andres Alvarez, who led the team in 2017 with 60 hits and ranked second with a .308 batting average.
They also return a pair of senior pitchers in Ryan Walker and Cody Anderson, who are both experienced starters. Walker led WSU last year with 59 strikeouts, while going 5-5 with a 5.67 ERA.
Anderson meanwhile went 5-4 with a team-best 3.40 ERA and struck out 58 batters.
“We’re going to face a couple of senior pitchers who know what they’re doing,” Erstad said. “Offensively, they’re going to put a lot of pressure on you with the hit-and-run and the bunt game, so it’s going to be very important that we get on them early and get a lead so we can minimize that type of stuff.”
Nebraska will play 11 straight road games to start this season.
You can contact Tommy at 402-840-5226, or you can follow him on Twitter @Tommy_KLIN.