Photo by Craig Houtz

Huskers Begin Practice Eyeing Better Start

By Brian Rosenthal

On one hand, last year’s Big Ten Conference regular season championship is in the rear view mirror for the Nebraska baseball time.

Practice for the 2018 season began Friday, and these Huskers will tell you it’s time to move forward, to not rest on last year’s laurels.

On the other hand, though, Nebraska coach Darin Erstad most definitely wants his team to remember that moment last May at Penn State, when players were jumping around, throwing water and generally going crazy after clinching the conference championship.

If you remember it, chances are, you will want to repeat it.

“Once you have that feeling, it’s infectious,” Erstad told reporters before practice at the Hawks Championship Indoor Center. “You want that. You want it again. You’ve tasted it, and you want more of it.”

Then again, Erstad also wants his players to remember that dreadful feeling they experienced in June, when the Huskers left Corvallis, Oregon, with defeats to Yale and Holy Cross in the NCAA Tournament.

So, which feeling do these Huskers want this season?

That answer is obvious, which is why although Friday marked the official first day of practice, it merely felt like a continuation of stringent offseason work by individual players determined to make 2018 special.

“Our guys are prepared,” Erstad said. “They know where they need to be. There’s been a lot of individual work. Now it’s putting that altogether.

“Up to this point, they’ve earned the right to be successful. They’ve put the work in, from the weight room to the GPAs to the way they put the work in the skill. They’ve done what we’ve asked them across the board up to this point. Now we find out what the identity of this team is.”

Sunny skies and temperatures in the 50s weren’t enough to allow Nebraska to begin practice outdoors at Haymarket Park. Because of the snowstorm earlier this week, that field isn’t quite ready, although Erstad hopes the team can get out there by Tuesday and get a couple of practices in before the weather is predicted to turn again.

Either way, Nebraska’s season opener is Feb. 16 against UC Riverside in Tempe, Arizona, and three weeks is three weeks.

“There has to be a sense of urgency,” Erstad said. “We have to get off to a good start if we want to do anything from a big picture standpoint, and our guys know that.”

Scott Schreiber certainly does. Drafted in the 26th round by the Tampa Bay Rays, the right fielder decided to return for his senior season, saying he has something to prove, both individually, and as a team.

“The first three seasons I’ve been here we haven’t had great starts, which has really hurt us in with the RPI,” Schreiber said. “We’ve just got to come out and make sure we’re prepared.”

Nebraska has lost four of five games to begin each of the last two seasons, and dropped six of eight games to begin last season.

To avoid a similar start, Erstad said his team must maximize its preparation over these next three weeks.

“I could sit here and make a bunch of excuses, but that’s just not going to happen,” Erstad said. “We have great indoor facilities, we’ve defended well, we’ve thrown strikes well. Where we haven’t done a good job is run production. We have to find a way to score more runs.”

That’s where Schreiber’s return is key. He led the Husker offense in most statistical categories last season, including batting average (.330), slugging percentage (.494), hits (77), RBIs (51), home runs (7) and doubles (15).

“I don’t want to put too much on my shoulders or anything like that,” Schreiber said, “but this offseason, I’ve definitely taken a way different approach to taking care of my body, putting in extra swings in the cages, doing all those things.

“Obviously there’s always going to be doubters. I think the big thing for me was not playing in the outfield each and every game, and then my power numbers were a little down last year. Those are things that as a player, if you want to be great, you’re always trying to improve on those things.”

On the mound, Erstad said he feels “very strongly” about Luis Alvarado as a Friday night starter in conference play.

“With him being a power pitcher,” Erstad said, “I want him as fresh as he can be.”

Drafted in the 13th round by the Seattle Mariners, Alvarado also decided to return for his senior season after batting .283 with 12 doubles, two triples, two home runs, 25 RBIs and 39 runs scored.

Because of those numbers, Erstad also wants Alvarado to remain in the lineup on days he doesn’t pitch, perhaps as a designated hitter or first baseman. That depends largely on how Alvarado feels after pitching. This will be his first season as a starting pitcher.

As for the rest of the weekend pitchers, “we knew who we’re going to build up, but I’m not going to sit here and announce rotations and stuff,” Erstad said.

With closer Chad Luensmann sidelined with injury for perhaps the season, Jake Hohensee will likely be used out of the bullpen, with Matt Waldron another option, although Erstad isn’t ready to slap a “closer” label on any one player.

“I’ll close whoever it is,” he said. “We’re going to put guys in the most high-level situations. We’re going to get them hot and bring them in the game.”

Schreiber said repeatedly he’s eager to see where this team can go after winning the Big Ten last season.

“I think it will give us a little bit of confidence heading into the season,” he said, “but we can’t lay back on that, otherwise we’re going to get destroyed right out of the gate.”

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

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