By Randy York, The N-Sider
On Friday, Feb. 17, Nebraska’s baseball team opens its 2017 season with a four-game series against the University of California-Riverside in Tempe, Ariz. The Huskers then move to Surprise, Ariz., the next weekend to play Oregon State twice (Feb. 23 and Feb. 25) and Utah twice (Feb. 24 and Feb. 26).
Those eight games in 10 days in Arizona set the table for an equally intriguing opportunity the following weekend at Dr. Pepper Ballpark in Frisco, Texas. Nebraska plays Oklahoma State in a 7:30 p.m. Friday game on March 3, another 7:30 p.m. game against Arkansas on Saturday, March 4, and a noon Sunday game against Arizona.
ESPN3 will stream all three games in Frisco with Cox Sports also televising Saturday night’s Nebraska-Arkansas game.
Since the Huskers are scheduled to play 11 road games before their season home-opener against Northern Colorado at Hawks Field on Tuesday March 7, The N-Sider offers up 10 quick hitters for Big Red fans, courtesy of Darin Erstad, who begins his sixth season as Nebraska’s head baseball coach and shared his thoughts at Monday's first 2017 press conference.
Huskers’ general sense of urgency: Since Erstad has been at the helm, the Huskers have struggled in opening weekend games, but Nebraska’s head coach has no excuses about the annual inability to practice baseball outside. “We have the facilities and we can get everything done,” he said. “Every single rep in practice is important, and we’ve been hammering on that.”
Pitchers making progress: Derek Burkamper (pictured above), is improving and will start the season in the bullpen. Equally encouraging is Jake Hohensee and Nate Fisher healing from Tommy John surgeries that kept them out last season. Despite a sore shoulder, Jake McSteen pitched from the mound and pitched very well last week. Due to an injury, Zack Engelken probably won’t pitch until mid-March or early-April. “We just take it day-by-day,” Erstad said. “For the most part, we’re in a good place.”
Business-like attitude creating the right mindset: Erstad likes his team’s quiet, business-like attitude. “They’ve given themselves an opportunity to be successful,” he said. “They’ve really bought into the one-pitch-at-a-time concept, one rep-at-a-time, and it just seems like they’ve been very methodical in how they’ve gone about their business. I like the mindset they have.”
Handling adversity head-on: The Huskers are working hard as a group. “It’s really going to depend on how we handle adversity and how we handle when the things don’t go right,” Erstad said. “When another team tries to pick a fight, how do we respond to that stuff? That’s what’s going to make or break our season.”
Close-knit teammates competing for time on the field: Erstad says this year’s “Huskers are probably not the most vocal over-the-top group. “There is no Mike Pritchard stirring the feathers and going about the team’s business, but I see a lot of guys very close to each other,” Erstad said. “We have a lot of competition this year. With eight games in the first two weekends, there’s going to be a lot of guys throwing.”
The Huskers’ leadoff hitter, pitcher and centerfielder: Asked at Monday’s press conference who would be Nebraska’s leadoff hitter, Erstad immediately mentioned Jake Meyers (pictured above), the Huskers’ pre-season All-American. “He’ll play center when he’s not pitching and will lead off hitting,” Erstad said. “That’s a good spot for him. We’re going to maximize our best players. We’re going to get them as many at-bats as we can."
The art of pulling for each other and developing chemistry: Erstad envisions players competing in multiple positions. “When we build the team concept, how do people handle it when they don’t play as much?” Erstad asked. “Are they still pulling for their teammates? Competition can be a double-edge sword, and it’s been interesting to see how they’ve handled that. On the surface, they’ve done a nice job.”
Huskers’ best hitters solidified in the lineup: If Nebraska’s baseball team was playing today and if everybody is healthy, “Scott Schreiber is going to hit in the 2-hole and Ben Miller in the 3-hole,” Erstad said. “I want all three of those guys to bat in the first inning, and I would imagine you’ll see Jesse Wilkening in the 4-hole. I would expect to see a little bit of a bump in what he was able to do from last year to this year.”
Maximizing Schreiber’s talents: “Scott made a huge step from his freshman year to his sophomore year,” Erstad said. “He recognizes pitches, understands what they were doing and uses the whole field. We have to be smart about his workload and have a plan not to put too much on his plate. He will be a designated hitter a few times. If he needs a day off, we will give him a day off. It’s about being smart about the work.”
Simplicity, Simplicity, Simplicity: Erstad wants to be a better coach this year. “We left a lot on the table last year,” he said. “We were in a position to score a ton of runs last year and let’s just say the numbers weren’t really, really good, and so we tweaked that. I think I probably made it too complicated for ‘em last year, so we simplified what we’re doing and letting them stick to their strengths, so they can play their best games.”
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