The 2012 Husker hardball squad is a mix of veterans and fresh faces. Both sides of the ball need significant work, but plenty of pieces from the 2011 version return.
However, fans will need both a program and a lineup card to keep all of the position moves straight. As new head coach Darin Erstad attempts to make his mark on the program, expect to see plenty of different combinations and orders early in the season.
Nebraska’s most seasoned returning position player surely is catcher Cory Burleson. The senior backstop caught 30 games last season. Burleson was solid defensively, throwing out 14 runners, and only being charged with one error. That said, his production behind the plate must improve as he only hit .223 in 2011 with 21 RBIs. This was somehow still good enough for fifth on the team.
Another Husker catcher who could bring some hitting prowess is junior transfer Richard Stock. Stock played for Southern California in 2010 and Los Angeles’ Pierce College in 2011, posting a .310 batting average and six home runs.Whether or not that average will transfer to Nebraska with Stock remains to be seen, but this west coast transplant could make a legitimate run for playing time.
The Husker infield will take on a new look this season. Only junior Bryan Peters will be at the same position he played in 2011.
The second baseman started all 55 games for the Huskers last season, posting a .273 average while leading the Huskers in sacrifice bunts (18), hit-by-pitches (18) and stolen bases (12). This fits in well with Erstad’s aggressive philosophy.
While fans got used to seeing junior Kurt Farmer playing the infield at first base last season, he’ll transition across the corners, playing third base in 2012. Farmer hit .275 during the 2011 season while ranking third on the team in doubles (11) and RBIs (32). His defensive abilities are likely the reason behind this move to the hot corner. While starting all 55 games in 2011, he was only charged with three errors.
First base’s slot will be filled by another player making a new home. Junior Kash Kalkowski who returned to Nebraska after being drafted in the 50th round by the Kansas City Royals. He began his Husker career as a pitcher, but played various positions last year while recording a .299 batting average.
Easily the second-best offensive threat on the squad last season, he ranked second on the team in RBIs (42), doubles (12), home runs (5) and triples (3). Kalkowski should hold the middle of the Huskers lineup.
The new face on the Husker infield will be that of true freshman Pat Kelly, who looks to hold down the shortstop slot. He was considered one of the top prep players in Minnesota, leading Red Wing High School to a conference championship thanks to his .436 batting average.
While the infield looks to be written in ink, the Huskers outfield is wide open. With senior Khiry Cooper out due to injury, Nebraska lost one experienced defender. Expect to see senior Kale Kiser leading off for the Huskers and filling an outfield slot.
After transitioning to the outfield last season, he finished 2011 with a .417 on-base percentage. The switch-hitter’s 32 walks to only 24 strikeouts was impressive considering his 183 at-bats. A Swiss army knife-style player, Kiser can play all three positions.
The Big Red position shake-up doesn’t stop at the infield, either. Junior Chad Christensen started every game last year at shortstop. He was one of the team’s better offensive threats, batting .292 with only nine errors in 294 attempts.
The other outfield position is up for grabs, but junior transfer Rich Sanguinetti (pronounced Sang-waa-net-EE) has the inside track. He travelled to Lincoln from Texarkana Community College where he played for new Husker assistant head coach Will Bolt. His unique combination of hitting and speed makes him a perfect fit for Erstad’s offense.
Sophomore Michael Pritchard may find it hard to crack the outfield lineup, but he should see plenty of time as Nebraska’s designated hitter. The left-hander came on strong at the end of 2011, starting nine of the last ten games while hitting .304. Coach Erstad believes him to be one of “the best hitters we have.” The Omaha native should see time both subbing in and outfield duty.
While the diamond features a good mix of newcomers and veterans, the latter playing new positions, the mound will have a plethora of youth and untapped ability.
The Huskers return a decent portion of their disappointing 2011 weekend rotation for new pitching coach Todd Silva to work with. Silva looks to move junior Tyler Niederklein from his starting role to replace second-team All Big-12 closer Casey Hauptman.
Niederklein started 13 games for Nebraska in 2011, posting an 8-3 record with a 4.17 ERA while working 69 innings. “He is a great competitor, you have to have that ‘bulldog’ on the mound to close games and Tyler has that,” said Coach Erstad about the decision to move him to the finishing role.
Junior Tom Lemke is the odds-on favorite to be the Friday night starter for the Huskers. He had surgery last summer to remove a blood clot, and was saw frequent injury last season. Despite his misfortune, he started five times and finished 2-0. He posted a 5.29 ERA over 34.0 innings with 27 strikeouts.
Sophomore Jon Keller spent 2011 as the Saturday starter role for Nebraska, and started every weekend series as a true freshman. Despite his 3-6 record, he posted a 3.62 ERA and 54 strikeouts across 64.2 innings of work. Most impressively, he didn’t give up more than three earned runs in any conference game start. He may challenge for the Friday night spot as well.
The main reliever should once again be junior Dylan Vogt, who may also see some weekday starts. Vogt appeared 21 times and started three games, ending the 2011 season with a 3-1 record and a 3.83 ERA.
Another key reliever is expected to be sophomore Brandon Pierce, who looks to be the Big Red’s setup man. In 20 appearances and three starts last season, Pierce struck out 32 batters in 31.1 innings and held opponents to a .265 batting average.
The key lefty for Nebraska is sophomore Tyler King, who appeared in 21 games as a true freshman, and may find his way in a starting role. He only gave up 10 hits in 20.1 innings, while posting a 2.21 ERA in 16 innings. He will be complemented by fellow lefty Zach Hirsch, who took the mound in 13 games and posted a 2.04 ERA.
The Huskers have no lack of talent going in 2012, and provided the players improve and play to their potential, fans should be excited about what this squad can do against the level of competition they’ll face during in 2012.