Hunger for Postseason Drives Huskers in 2014
Third-year Head Coach Darin Erstad returns a strong core from his 2013 squad that came up two wins shy of earning a share of the Big Ten regular-season title and was one win away from winning the Huskers’ first conference tournament title since 2005.
Nebraska returns five position starters from a year ago, including All-Big Ten performers Pat Kelly (2B), Blake Headley (3B) and Michael Pritchard (OF/DH), along with catcher Tanner Lubach, who made 46 starts in 2013, and junior outfielder Austin Darby, who has made 85 starts during his first two seasons in Lincoln.
But the biggest return from 2013 is not one player, it’s a trio, as the Huskers return their weekend rotation of senior Christian DeLeon, as well as juniors Kyle Kubat and Aaron Bummer. It is the most stable the Huskers’ rotation has been since 2005 to 2006, when Nebraska returned Joba Chamberlain and Johnny Dorn, while replacing Zach Kroenke with Tony Watson.
Nebraska will need to replace an eight-member senior class from a year ago that accounted for 147 wins and six all-conference honors during its time at Nebraska. The Huskers will try to help do that with one of the strongest recruiting classes in recent memory. The class was ranked 11th nationally by Baseball America, the highest ranking in school history.
Bulk of Pitching Staff Back in ‘14
RHP - Luke Bublitz, Sr.
LHP - Aaron Bummer, Jr.
RHP - Jeff Chesnut, So.
LHP - Austin Christensen, So.
RHP - Christian DeLeon, Sr.
LHP - Zach Hirsch, Sr.
RHP - Colton Howell, So.
LHP - Tyler King, Sr.
LHP - Kyle Kubat, Jr.
RHP - Josh Roeder, Jr.
RHP - Derek Burkamper, Fr.
LHP - Christian Cox, Jr.
LHP - Grant Gamble, Fr.
RHP - Bob Greco, Sr.
RHP - Jake Hohensee, Fr.
RHP - Michael Klein, Fr.
LHP - Max Knutson, Fr.
LHP - Ben Miller, Fr.
RHP - Chance Sinclair, Jr.
Pitching Coach Ted Silva will have 19 pitchers to work with in 2014. The balanced staff includes 10 right-handed arms and nine southpaws, allowing the Huskers to create match-up problems for opposing hitters.
The group is headlined by the returning weekend rotation of Christian DeLeon, Kyle Kubat and Aaron Bummer, who combined to go 15-5 a year ago with a 2.66 ERA and five shutouts, including one no-hitter.
Overall, the Huskers return arms that account for over 65% of the team’s inning pitched last season, while closer Dylan Vogt is the only departed pitcher who had an ERA under 5.00 last season.
Speaking of Vogt, the Huskers will need to find a new closer as the Omaha native converted eight saves over 30 appearances a year ago. His 30 appearances were tied for the seventh most in school history, and he was the first pitcher to make 30 trips to the mound since Brett Jensen made 33 in 2005.
Josh Roeder is expected to get the first shot at the closer role after converting six saves in 2013. The junior led the team with a 1.74 ERA last season, while notching 29 strikeouts in 31.0 innings of work.
Prior to Roeder entering the game, the Huskers may look to righty Luke Bublitz or lefty Zach Hirsch. Bublitz made a career-high 24 appearances in 2013 and was nearly untouchable at the Big Ten Tournament. The senior earned a pair of wins out of the bullpen, as he threw 6.0 innings of scoreless relief over four appearances, while giving up just three hits and one walk.
Hirsch was on his way to finding his niche in the Husker bullpen, but an injury to his non-throwing wrist at practice forced him to miss the final 31 games of the season. The 6-4 lefty lowered his ERA from 7.53 to 4.78 over his final five appearances and gave up just two earned runs over his final 12.0 innings of action.
The Huskers will also need to lean on senior Tyler King, as well as sophomores Jeff Chesnut and Colton Howell, while eight newcomers find their role in the staff.
Two newcomers who will be expected to contribute right away are junior Chance Sinclair and senior Bob Greco.
Sinclair joined the Huskers after spending two seasons at Neosho County Community College, where he was the Panthers’ 2012-13 Male Student Athlete of the Year. The 6-4 righty set multiple school records during his two-year stint, including career wins with 18.
Greco used three years of eligibility at Bellevue University where he was a two-time NAIA honorable-mention All-American. The Papillion native could be used in a variety of ways after throwing 92.2 innings in 2013 over 11 starts.
Six freshmen will battle for time on the mound in 2014, and with a coaching staff where playing time is earned and not handed out, each will have the opportunity to prove they should have the ball in their hand.
Experience Behind the Plate
Taylor Fish, So.
Tanner Lubach, Jr.
Beau Fandel, Fr.
Unlike last season when Erstad didn’t have a catcher on the roster who had caught a game at Nebraska, the Huskers return two backstops with starting experience in Tanner Lubach and Taylor Fish, while adding freshman Beau Fandel.
After earning second-team NJCAA All-American honors as a freshman at Hutchinson Community College in 2012, Lubach became the Huskers’ primary catcher in 2013. The Lincoln native found his rhythm at the plate late in the year, as he hit .308 in the month of May, including a walk-off home run against Indiana at the Big Ten Tournament.
Fish is in his third year in the program and continues to improve offensively and defensively. The Kearney product made 11 starts over 16 games of action last season following a redshirt season in 2012.
Ranked as one of the top 10 players out of the state of Minnesota, Fandel will not be expected to step in an play right away in 2014. He will have the opportunity to learn how to catch at the collegiate level from third-year volunteer assistant Jeff Christy, who played in the Minnesota Twins organization after catching a school-record 64 games on Nebraska’s 2005 College World Series team.
Two Starters Back, Two to Replace in the Infield
Austin Christensen, So.
Wes Edrington, So.
Blake Headley, Jr.
Pat Kelly, Jr.
Jake Placzek, So.
Michael Klein, Fr.
Matt Leuty, Fr.
Ben Miller, Fr.
Bryce Only, Fr.
Steven Reveles, Jr.
While the Huskers return a pair of all-conference performers at second and third base in Pat Kelly and Blake Headley, respectively, Erstad and Associate Head Coach Will Bolt need to find new gloves at both first base and shortstop.
Following the departure of senior and two-time MLB draftee Kash Kalkowski, Husker fans will see a new face at first base for the third straight season after Kalkowski took over for Richard Stock following the 2012 season when Stock signed a MLB contract with the Cleveland Indians.
Austin Christensen is expected to get the first shot at first base after missing the last two seasons with injury. Christensen had Tommy John surgery during the Fall of 2012 and is now ready to get on the field for the Huskers. Along with a solid stick at the plate, Christensen provides a big 6-5 frame at first base.
At shortstop, Nebraska will look to sophomore returnee Jake Placzek and Santa Barbara City College transfer Steven Reveles to take over for the departed Bryan Peters and sophomore Wes Edrington, who had knee surgery during the Fall and is expected to miss the 2014 campaign.
Placzek made 15 starts last season as a true freshman, while Reveles was named a California Community College Athletic Association All-American after hitting .305 and leading the Western State Conference with 30 stolen bases.
Kelly, an All-America candidate, has a firm hold at second base where he was a first-team All-Big Ten pick last season. The junior from Red Wing, Minn., led the team in 2013 in hits with 85, while ranking third in batting average (.331), RBIs (33) and doubles (12). He also produced a team-high 175 assists on the year, tying him for sixth all-time in the Husker single-season record book.
Following an injury to senior Josh Scheffert just 20 games into the 2013 season, Headley took over at third base and excelled. He was selected third-team All-Big Ten after hitting .337 in 23 Big Ten games with four doubles and 14 RBIs, while committing just three errors all season, the fewest for any third baseman in the league.
Along with Reveles, other newcomers include Michael Klein, Matt Leuty, Ben Miller and Bryce Only. Each will provide depth during the year and all have the ability to battle for playing time.
New and Old Battle in the Outfield
Austin Darby, Jr.
Ty Kildow, Sr.
Michael Pritchard, Sr.
Ryan Boldt, Fr.
Christian Cox, Jr.
Quinn McGill, Fr.
With just three returning outfielders from a year ago and three newcomers, there will be stiff competition for NU’s three outfield spots.
The Huskers’ will have Michael Pritchard’s bat in the lineup, but the senior from Omaha could be used in left field or as the squad’s designated hitter. He served as the DH for most of last season with Chad Christensen, now a member of the Minnesota Twins organization, roaming in left field. However, Pritchard did take over in left when Christensen moved to right following an injury to now departed all-conference center fielder Rich Sanguinetti.
Austin Darby is likely to get the start in either right or center field, as the junior started most of the 2013 season in right field before moving to center when Sanguinetti got hurt. Darby possesses all the tools in the outfield, combining speed, instincts and a strong arm.
Kildow is the other returner of the group and will battle for time in center field. During his two years in the program the senior has played in 39 games, but mostly as a pinch runner due to his plus speed.
Out of the newcomers, Christian Cox has the most experience following two years at Hutchinson Community College, where he played one season with NU catcher Tanner Lubach in 2011. A lefty, Cox possesses good speed and has a solid approach at the plate, evident by his .489 on-base percentage last year.
A pair of freshmen round out the group, including Minnesota native Ryan Boldt and Wahoo, Neb., product Quinn McGill.
Boldt will be expected to contribute the soonest after turning down a professional contract from the Boston Red Sox to instead play at Nebraska with his cousin, Pat Kelly. Boldt was also a member of Team USA’s 2012 Under-18 team that took gold at the XXV IBAF World Championships and was named MVP of the 2012 Perfect Game All-American Classic.
McGill brings a good eye at the plate and above average speed to the field, as he stole a state-high 28 bases last season. He hit .470 during his prep career and struck out just three times during his senior season.
Huskers Tested Early and Often in 2014
The Huskers are set to play 56 games under third-year skipper Darin Erstad, including 27 games at Hawks Field. The Huskers will play 11 games against teams that qualified for the 2013 NCAA Tournament, including a pair of games with College World Series participant Oregon State. The Beavers enter the 2014 season ranked in the top-five nationally by most publications, including a No. 2 preseason ranking by Baseball America.
The Husker coaching staff scheduled a balanced non-conference slate with 15 games at home and 17 on the road, including seven neutral site games.
The Huskers will again play eight Big Ten series, playing four each at home and on the road. After completing a two-year cycle of conference games, Nebraska faces Michigan State and Penn State for the first time in the regular season, while dropping series with Indiana and Purdue. The Huskers have never faced the Spartans or Nittany Lions during regular-season conference play, but have battled both squads at the Big Ten Tournament.
After playing 19 of its first 24 games on the road last season, Nebraska starts the year with 10 straight games away from Lincoln, before returning to Hawks Field for 10 straight home games.
Opening day for Nebraska is set for Friday, Feb. 14, at the Spring Training home of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Tempe Diablo Stadium in Tempe, Ariz., when the Huskers meet the Pacific Tigers.
The Huskers return to Tempe Diablo the following day for a pair of games, as Nebraska takes on Oregon State at Noon followed by a contest with the Gonzaga Bulldogs at 4 p.m. The Huskers finish the weekend by playing their fourth game in three days on Sunday, Feb. 16, with a another game against Gonzaga at 1 p.m.
Nebraska returns to Arizona for the second weekend of the year, where they will visit Surprise Stadium in Surprise, Ariz., the Spring Training home of the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals. Fellow Big Ten programs Michigan State and Indiana will also be in Surprise with the Huskers, as the three Big Ten teams will play one game each against Pac-12 programs Oregon State, Washington and Utah.
The Huskers end their season-opening 10-game road swing with a trip to Charleston, S.C., for a three-game series with The Citadel. The Bulldogs and Huskers open the three-game set at 4 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 28, at Riley Park, before continuing the series with one game each on Saturday and Sunday.
The Huskers’ home opener is set for Tuesday, March 4, at 1:35 p.m. when the Kansas State Wildcats visit Hawks Field. The Wildcats, who enter the season ranked 22nd by both Baseball America and Perfect Game, won the Big 12 regular-season title for the first time in 80 years last season and were also one win away from making a trip to the College World Series, but fell on the road to Oregon State at the Corvallis Super Regional.
Following two days off after hosting the Wildcats, Nebraska welcomes the St. John’s Red Storm from the newly formed Big East Conference for a three-game series. The series opens at 1:35 p.m. on Friday, March 7. The teams then meet at 1:05 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday.
Northern Colorado then comes to Lincoln for a pair of games on Tuesday, March 11, and Wednesday, March 12, before the UC Irvine Anteaters open a three-game series at Hawks Field on Friday, March 14, at 4:35 p.m.
The 10-game home stand concludes on Tuesday, March 18, with the first of three meetings throughout the season with the Creighton Bluejays. First pitch is set for 6:35 p.m.
With 20 non-conference games in the books, the Huskers open Big Ten play in Iowa City, Iowa, on Friday, March 21, at 3 p.m. with a three-game set against the Iowa Hawkeyes. It marks the second straight season that Huskers have traveled to Iowa City, with the Huskers taking 2-of-3 at Duane Banks Field a year ago.
Nebraska stays on the road for its next two games, traveling to the state of Kansas for one game each with Wichita State and Kansas State. The Huskers visit the Shockers on Tuesday, March 25, before heading north on HWY 77 for a game with the Wildcats the following night.
The Huskers conclude the month of March with a three-game home series with the UNLV Rebels. The Rebels will make their first-ever trip to Lincoln and the series opens on Friday, March 28, at 6:35 p.m.
Nebraska starts the month of April by paying a visit to former NU Head Coach Dave Van Horn with a mid-week trip to Fayetteville, Ark., for two games with the Arkansas Razorbacks, ranked 25th in Baseball America’s preseason poll. Game one is set for 6:35 p.m. on Tuesday, April 1, with the second game set for 1:35 p.m. the next afternoon.
Nebraska hosts it first Big Ten Conference series of the year on Friday, April 4, when the Ohio State Buckeyes visit Lincoln for the second straight season. In just two seasons as conference foes, the Huskers and Buckeyes have met nine times, including three times at the Big Ten Tournament.
The Huskers then play their next four games on the road, starting with their first trip of the season to TD Ameritrade Park on Tuesday, April 8, for a 6:30 p.m. game with Creighton. The week concludes with a three-game conference series in Minneapolis, Minn., with the Minnesota Golden Gophers that starts on Friday, April 11.
Following a pair of non-conference games with Kansas State and UNO, the Northwestern Wildcats open a three-game series in Lincoln starting on Friday, April 18, at 6:35 p.m.
Nebraska then heads back to the road with a trip to Ann Arbor, Mich., to face the Michigan Wolverines. The three game series opens on Friday, April 25, with first pitch scheduled for 5 p.m.
Nebraska heads to Omaha on consecutive nights, starting on Tuesday, April 29, with a second trip to TD Ameritrade Park to face the Bluejays. The Huskers will be in Omaha the following night as well, but will be at Werner Park to battle UNO at 6:30 p.m.
The month of May consists of only Big Ten action, as the Huskers end the 2014 regular season with nine straight conference games.
The Penn State Nittany Lions open the month of May on Friday, May 2, at 6:35 p.m. with the first of three games at Hawks Field. It is the first-ever series between the two teams.
Nebraska then makes its first Big Ten trip to East Lansing, Mich., the following weekend for three games with the Michigan State Spartans, starting at 2:05 p.m. on Saturday, May 10, at McLane Baseball Stadium. The series is set to run Saturday-Sunday-Monday.
The 2014 regular season comes to a close with a three-game series against the Illinois Fighting Illini. After opening Big Ten play with the Illini the past two seasons, the two teams will instead end the regular season starting on Thursday, May 15, at 6:35 p.m. The three-game set continues on Friday night at 6:35 p.m. and ends on Saturday at 1:05 p.m.
Nebraska will look to qualify for the Big Ten Tournament for the third straight season, which is being held at TD Ameritrade Park in 2014.