Huskers Aim for Return to NCAA Tournament in 2013
Head Coach Darin Erstad begins his second season in Lincoln in 2013 after leading the Huskers back to the postseason with a conference tournament appearance in 2012 for the first time since the 2008 season.
A trip to the Big Ten Tournament was a step in the right direction a year ago, but was short of the team's ultimate goal of an NCAA Regional bid and beyond.
At the plate, the Huskers blossomed under the direction of Erstad and Associate Head Coach Will Bolt.
The Huskers led the Big Ten Conference in six categories, including home runs (47), RBIs (375), runs (413), total bases (916), on-base pct. (.384) and slugging pct. (.445).
The Huskers also made noise on the national scene, as they ranked in the top-20 nationally in seven categories, including top-10 rankings in both batting average and scoring.
After hitting .270 as a team in 2011, the Huskers hit .315 in 2012 to rank eighth in the country. The Huskers also ranked eighth nationally in scoring with 7.1 runs per game after scoring 5.4 runs a game in 2011.
With a more disciplined approach at the plate, NU had 106 fewer strikeouts than it had in 2011, while playing three more games in 2012. The Huskers also produced 150 more hits, drove in 107 more runs and hit 17 more home runs to lead the Big Ten with 47 home runs. No other team in the league hit more than 38 homers.
Three Huskers were named first-team All-Big Ten, including shortstop Chad Christensen, outfielder Rich Sanguinetti and designated hitter Michael Pritchard, all of whom return for the 2013 season. Overall, eight Huskers earned All-Big Ten honors across the first, second and third teams.
Nebraska returns nearly all of its offensive firepower from a year ago. Out of 15 offensive categories, the Huskers return last season's leader in 12 of the categories. Departed senior Richard Stock led the squad in doubles (20) and triples (3) a season ago, while fellow 2012 senior Kale Kiser led the team in walks (38).
On the mound, Nebraska staff's continues to grow under the tutelage of Ted Silva. Silva's proven approach was a change in philosophy for NU's arms last year and while it took some adjustments early, success on the mound started to show in the second half of the season.
Compared to the first 12 games of Big Ten play, the NU pitching staff gave up 13 fewer runs in the final 12 game of Big Ten action, while also surrendering few walks and producing more strikeouts. Opponents hit .307 at the plate in the first half of the conference season, but just .293 over the final 12 games of the year.
Out of the 14 players who saw action on the mound a year ago, nine return, including four pitchers who started four or more games. Silva brought in nine new pitchers as well, which should breed plenty of competition on the mound.
Silva will have 17 pitchers to work with in 2013, including 13 right-handed arms and four southpaws. The staff will be without the services of both Austin Christensen and Matt Jones in 2013, as each recovers from Tommy John surgery.
The Huskers will look to sophomore Kyle Kubat in 2013 to be one of the anchors of their weekend rotation, as the Waterloo, Neb., native emerged as one of the most consistent starters during the end of 2012. Kubat, who won his final three starts during Big Ten play, was named a Freshman All-American by Collegiate Baseball and was a third-team All-Big Ten performer.
Junior Zach Hirsch also returns after leading the team in both starts (13) and innings pitched (60.1) a year ago. The 6-4 lefty focused on improving his stamina in the offseason, as his workload in 2012 was a big jump over his 17.2 innings of work during the 2011 campaign.
The Huskers also hope for strong returns from seniors Tyler Niederklein and Ryan Hander, who both had offseason hip surgery. Each started and worked out of the bullpen a year ago.
Hander worked his way into the starting rotation at the end of the season, including a 6.1-inning gem against Penn State at the Big Ten Tournament, where he struck out a career-high seven to lead NU to a 12-3 win.
In the bullpen, Dylan Vogt could be used in a variety of rolls from long relief to closer. The Omaha native developed a reputation in 2012 for getting big outs when the Huskers needed them. He posted a 1.84 ERA over 53.2 innings of work, while striking out 34 and giving up just five extra-base hits all year, including no home runs.
Silva will need contributions from a trio of juniors in righties Brandon Pierce and Luke Bublitz, as well as lefty Tyler King, who led the team last season in appearances with 27.
While all three will be key contributors out of the bullpen, the Huskers also could look to King and Pierce to start in 2013, as they combined for eight starts last season.
Sophomore Aaron Bummer's continued development in 2013 will be something to watch after the lefty held opposing hitters to a .219 average last season in 20 appearance out of the bullpen. The 6-2 lefty struck out 22 in 19.1 innings of work and is expected to see his role grow in 2013.
The Husker staff is rounded out by three true freshmen (Jeff Chesnut, Mike Hadden, Colton Howell), one redshirt freshman (Logan Thune), and four junior college transfers (Christian DeLeon, Caleb Hawkins, Michael Hoppes, Josh Roeder).
With a small returning staff, each newcomer will have an opportunity to work his way onto the mound.
Catcher is arguably the biggest question mark for the 2013 squad, as no player on the roster has previously caught a game at Nebraska.
Taylor Fish returns after redshirting during his freshman season a year ago, while he is joined by junior college transfers Tanner Lubach and Corey Stringer, both Nebraska natives.
Stringer has two years of eligibility remaining, while Lubach has three seasons after being named a second-team NJCAA All-American as a freshman last season at Hutchinson Community College.
All three catchers continued to develop defensively under volunteer assistant Jeff Christy during the fall.
In his first year with the Huskers a year ago, Christy helped senior catcher Cory Burleson become one of the best defensive catchers in the Big Ten Conference. After throwing out 14-of-40 base runners in 2011, Burleson threw out 20 runners, while giving up just 18 steals in 2012.
The Huskers return a wealth of depth to their infield in 2013, but fans will see some new faces at shortstop.
Chad Christensen was slated to make the move to the outfield last season, but injuries forced him back to shortstop for the 2012 campaign. The senior from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is back in the outfield for 2013, leaving shortstop open to senior Bryan Peters, as well as a pair of youngster in freshmen Wes Edrington and Jake Placzek.
Peters, who has seen most of his work at second base during his first three seasons at Nebraska, showed the ability to slide over a spot on the diamond in the fall due to his athleticism. The 6-2 senior was one of the top multi-sport athletes out of Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins, Colo., as he was named the 2010 Colorado Gatorade Player of the Year. A team-first guy, Peters will do whatever the Huskers need him to do to win games in 2013.
Placzek, a first-team All-Nebraska and Super-State pick from La Vista, was thrown right into the mix during the fall and will continue to develop with more game action.
Edrington, a product of Fishers, Ind., joined the Huskers for the second semester after graduating from high school in December. He joins the team with lots of potential, but still needs to show he can make the transition to the college game.
Entering the season, sophomore Pat Kelly looks to have a firm lock on the second base position after producing one of the top freshman campaigns in recent history at NU. Named a freshman All-American by four publications, Kelly's play in the field became a strength as the season went on as he adjusted to the speed of the game. Kelly provides above average pop at the plate for a middle infielder, proven by his 16 extra-base hits last season, including eight home runs, the most homers by a Husker freshman since 2000.
After struggling at the plate as a sophomore in 2011, Josh Scheffert rebounded in a big way in 2012 and looks to continue his growth at the hot corner. A second-team All-Big Ten selection last year, Scheffert was second on the team with a .358 batting average with 12 doubles, eight home runs and 41 RBIs. He also flashed a solid glove in the field with just five errors on the season, including only one error during Big Ten play.
After battling injuries last season and during the fall, Kash Kalkowski looks to end his career on a high note and will likely see his senior year start at first base. A shortstop at Grand Island High School, Kalkowski has a solid glove and athleticism at first. He started his career at Nebraska as a pitcher before an arm injury turned him into a position player. He has flourished as both an outfielder and infielder. Kalkowski combines one of the best pure swings on the team with good power and can be a top threat in the NU lineup if he stays healthy.
Blake Headley rounds out the Husker infielders and could see time all across the diamond. The sophomore from Omaha started at both shortstop and third base last season, but also spent time working at first base in the fall. Headley uses his 6-2 frame well at first base, but also possesses a strong arm to play the left side of the infield.
Unlike last season where every outfield position was wide open, the Huskers should have a good idea of how their outfield will shape up to start the 2013 season.
After transferring from Texarkana CC, Rich Sanguinetti anchored the Husker outfield in center and was tabbed as a first-team All-Big Ten selection. He started 55 games a year ago, making just one error. A righty in the field, Sanguinetti hits lefty and was NU's No. 2 hitter for most of the season, producing a .323 average. The Huskers will look for him to put more pressure on opposing pitchers on the basepaths this season by improving on his seven steals from a year ago.
The previously mentioned Christensen is slated to make the permanent move to the outfield in 2013. Drafted in the 35th round by the Miami Marlins in the 2012 MLB Draft, Christensen turned down a Major League contract to return for one more season of collegiate baseball. He is coming off his best season at Nebraska and will be looked to again to drive the Huskers' offense. The 6-3 righty led the team in home runs (10), RBIs (48), total bases (114), steals (8), multi-hit games (23) and multi-RBI games (13), while ranking second on the team in runs (49) and third in hits (71) last year. He also hit over .300 for the first time in his career with a .311 batting average.
Following a freshman season where he made 35 starts and played in 42 games, Austin Darby will try to earn a permanent spot in the Husker outfield this season. A member of the All-Big Ten Freshman Team last year, Darby throws right and hits left, while running very well at 6-3, as he was a perfect 7-for-7 in steal attempts last season. He has shown the ability to hit for power, but needs to improve his consistency for contact at the plate.
While Michael Pritchard, a 2013 preseason second-team All-American (NCBWA), didn't see much time in the outfield last season due to a shoulder injury, he was the glue of the Husker lineup at designated hitter. The lefty from Omaha was named a third-team All-American by the NCBWA after putting together one of the best seasons by a Husker hitter in recent memory. Pritchard tied Derek Dukart (1994) for the third-longest hitting streak in school history at 25 games. With one of the top contact swings in the country, Pritchard batted .387 and produced a team-high 82 hits, tying him with Adam Bailey (2010) for the most hits by a Husker in a season since Ryan Wehrle had 84 in 2006. Pritchard's one strikeout for every 21.2 at bats ranked eighth in the country, and he was one of just two players from a BCS conference to rank in the top 10. Nebraska will look to Pritchard to set the table in 2013 for the Husker RBI producers.
Ty Kildow continues to get better each day after making the transition to baseball a year ago following two years as a member of Bo Pelini's football team. One of the fastest student-athletes on campus, Kildow provides solid depth at all three outfield spots. With a year of strictly baseball under his belt, he will look to put himself in position for more playing time after seeing action in 23 games last season.
Omaha native Quentin Urban will provide depth and is looking to get his opportunity on the field after redshirting last season and missing the fall with a foot injury. An All-Nebraska selection in both football and baseball at Millard South High School, Urban is still a raw talent that needs to get game experience.
Infielders Scheffert and Kalkowski also have seen significant time in the outfield during their careers at Nebraska, while Erstad also believes Lubach could see time in the outfield depending on situations.