Official Husker Locker Blog
2012 Feb 21
NEBRASKA BASEBALL: Season-Opening Sweep Feels Familiar
This past weekend, Nebraska baseball featured a new skipper, and was on the road against another northern baseball school to open its season.
After firing a head coach who had a losing record in conference play the previous season, the new head man found himself on the wrong end of a sweep, with heartbreaking losses and an inability to close games.
Dave Van Horn inherited a tougher situation than Darin Erstad, but not by much. Van Horn took over the job only 45 days prior to the opening game before being swept by Minnesota in the Metrodome. The similarities continue as Van Horn took over a group of seniors and juniors that, like Erstad’s, had never experienced a winning conference record.
Sitting behind the Nebraska dugout, a few rows above Coach Erstad and his assistants, Will Bolt and Ted Silva, you could see that there was no panic on their faces as the Huskers blew ninth inning leads.
Nebraska lost two games against Gonzaga they could’ve, and probably should’ve won thus suffering the same fate as Van Horn’s club did their first weekend out. However, there was sheer determination and focus in the 2012 squad. No panic, no frustration.
The most poignant moment this weekend occurred moments after Nebraska was officially swept. Erstad, Bolt, Silva and volunteer assistant Jeff Christy walked off to the outfield by themselves. You could tell they were upset at blowing another lead, but there was calm to the situation. They were clearly figuring out what to tell the team.
It was probably a long plane ride back for the Big Red. It should’ve been after blowing two leads in the ninth inning, one after Gonzaga had collected seven errors. The Huskers need to figure out who can close games and there are some serious defensive issues at shortstop to address.
True freshman Pat Kelly showed great range, but had multiple throwing errors in just four attempts, including one favorably scored as a hit for Gonzaga. Kurt Farmer had three errors as well as he played the majority of the series in relief of Kelly.
What was encouraging was the approach at the plate from the Huskers. Erstad and Bolt’s philosophy was aggressive, with the Huskers swinging at first pitches much more frequently than under former head coach Mike Anderson. This mirrors Erstad’s own playing days.
One of the biggest complaints about Anderson’s last few years was how tentative the Huskers looked at the plate, and how frequently a first pitch fastball right down the middle would be taken for strike one.
The ferociousness put constant pressure on Gonzaga. Despite leading the Huskers in the hit column on Saturday and Sunday, the Bulldogs trailed during those games until the pivotal final inning.
The assertiveness by Nebraska didn’t always pay off. Some Huskers were picked off on Friday, some runners were thrown out trying to stretch singles into doubles, and base-runners were caught stealing. However, the philosophy is welcomed, and the pressure on Gonzaga pitchers was evident.
Nebraska’s pitching was a roller coaster ride. Sunday's starter, left-handed freshman Kyle Kubat, deserved the praise Erstad lavished on him after choosing to start this weekend as he posted five shutout innings.
The rest of the bullpen will need to settle in under Ted Silva, but Tom Lemke looked strong before giving up runs late. If he can get into a groove, he should be an excellent contender to hold down a weekend spot.
What happened with the closers? Favorite Tyler Niederklien owns an ERA of 99.0 after getting rocked for five runs in his sole appearance. Expect him to bounce back, but after not warming someone up behind Niederklien on Saturday, Erstad didn’t make the same mistake Sunday with Brandon Pierce. A blown save and a loss still awaited the Huskers, though.
After one weekend of play, what can these Huskers accomplish in 2012? The jury’s still out. Much of that will depend on how the team develops. In terms of hitting, Kash Kalkowski, Michael Pritchard and Chad Christensen all looked great, but Bolt will need more production from the rest of the lineup.
The Huskers’ pitching obviously needs a lot of work. NU’s bullpen completed the weekend with a 5.67 ERA and allowing the Zags a .345 hitting percentage, but the Silva is the right man to correct glaring errors. If Nebraska can find consistency from the shortstop position, the defense should be solid.
It’s impossible to predict how good the Huskers will be based on an early weekend in Peoria, Arizona, but it’s safe to assume the Big Ten won’t be sending two teams to the NCAA tournament. Nebraska’s schedule and RPI won’t let them get in without a conference tournament win, especially after a sweep by the Bulldogs.
Husker fans should still look for improvement across the board in 2012. Nebraska has an excellent coaching staff and a group of players that should be able to compete for and win the Big Ten conference.
Expect the team to look more cohesive and comfortable by April. If the Huskers get hot during the critical May stretch, who knows? Perhaps the idea of putting a dent in the NCAA tournament isn’t so far-fetched.
However, just as Dave Van Horn was swept in his first series as Nebraska’s skipper, he also didn’t make the NCAA tournament in his first season. Husker fans clearly want the baseball program to return to prominence.
With nearly 1,000 supporters showing up on multiple days to cheer on the team 1,000 miles from Lincoln, the fresh support behind the program is easy to see. 2012 isn’t a make or break year for Erstad, but the Huskers will need to improve greatly over the next three months to have any chance at appeasing a fan base desperately hoping for a return to relevance.
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