Baseball Preview: Nebraska

Unlike Fullerton's opponent on opening night, Nebraska had very little history of success in baseball and made only three regional appearances prior to the arrival of Dave Van Horn before the 1998 season.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

  • Overall Record – 34-23
  • Conference Record – 14-10 (4th in the Big Ten) 
  • Post-Season – None
  • RPI/ISR – 94/70
  • Pre-season ranking – none
  • Predicted conference finish – 2nd by the Big Ten coaches, 2nd by Baseball America, 4th by Perfect Game and 1st by Easton College Baseball Today

All that Van Horn's teams managed to do was win the Big XII tournament to advance to a regional in his second season in 1999, win the Big XII tournament and a regional in 2000, win the Big XII regular season and tournament championships and advanced to their first College World Series in 2001 (when they played their first game against Fullerton) and made another appearance in Omaha in 2002 before Van Horn moved on to Arkansas

Van Horn's assistant Mike Anderson was promoted to the head coaching position for 2003 and Nebraska made regional appearances in five of his first six seasons with two Big XII titles and an appearance in the College World Series in 2005.  However, things got off track after UC Irvine won the regional that Nebraska hosted in 2008 and the Cornhuskers failed to make a regional or finish better than ninth in each of Anderson's final three seasons and he was replaced after the 2011 season by volunteer assistant Darin Erstad, a fan favorite in Orange County for his lengthy career with the Angels. 

The Cornhuskers were much more competitive in 2012 than they were in their final few years under Anderson, which isn't a surprise considering Erstad's all-out style as a player.  After Nebraska was swept by Gonzaga to start the season they got red hot and won 16 of their next 20 games.  The Cornhuskers were positioned to get off to a good start against their new conference opponents in the Big Ten and they won five of their eight conference series on the way to finishing in fourth place before going 1-2 in the Big Ten tournament to end the season at 34-23, 14-10.

Also in contrast to Fullerton's first opponent this weekend who had one of the worst offenses in their conference, Nebraska had the best offense in their conference and one of the best offenses in the country.  The turnaround with Erstad in charge was instantaneous as the Cornhuskers improved their team AVG by 45 points and scored almost two more runs per game, led the Big Ten in R, HR, TB, SLG and OBP and were second in AVG and finished in the top ten nationally in scoring and AVG and in the top 25 in the country in HR and SLG, accomplishing all of that despite playing in a ballpark that significantly favors pitchers.  

With an offense like that, one would have expected Nebraska to finish higher in the Big Ten standings but they were only 8th in the conference in ERA, 9th in strikeouts and 10th in AVG.  Many of the same players who were responsible for the lofty numbers that the Cornhuskers put up on offense are back and Nebraska is looking for improvement in former Fullerton pitching coach Ted Silva's second season as the pitching coach with their three leaders in ERA and eight of the ten pitchers who threw at least 25 innings returning.

 

Offense

  • Park Factor according to Boyd's World – 81 from 2008-2011 (decreases offense by 19%). Dimensions are 335-403-395-400-330.  Big power alleys and cold weather for most of the season make Haymarket Park a tough place to hit.
  • Batting Average – .315 (2nd in the Big Ten, 8th in the NCAA)
  • Runs Per Game – 7.1 (1/8)
  • Home Runs – 47 (1/21)
  • Slugging Percentage – .445 (1/16)
  • On Base Percentage – .384 (1/34)
  • Walks – 184 (7/187)
  • HBP's – 61 (5/113)
  • Strikeouts – 288 (10/xx)
  • Sac Bunts – 47 (5/113)
  • Stolen Bases – 62 (5/111)


Lineup

Infield

Nebraska lost both of their catchers but has plenty of experience around the infield with several all-conference candidates, although some of them will be shifting around from where they played in 2012.

C – JC transfers #8 Tanner Lubach (RH) and #16 Corey Stringer (RH) and redshirt FR #45 Taylor Fish (RH) have been battling since fall ball to see who would replace the catching tandem of Cory Burleson and Richard Stock.  Baseball America rated Lubach as the #5 newcomer in the Big Ten.

1B – SR #3 Kash Kalkowski (RH – .310/.360/.425, 4-37-7.  '11 – .299/.378/.469, 5-42-11) also split time with Stock at 1B and played some OF in 2012 but will be the main guy at 1B this season.  He battled some injuries in 2012 but should be able to put up some solid numbers if he stays healthy.  Kalkowski is a very aggressive hitter and he has walked only 14 times the last two seasons, although he did a decent job of making contact in 2012 with 17 K's and he will stand in and take a HBP (team leader with 10 in 2012).  He has good speed for a 1B and is a good athlete who does a solid job defensively.

2B – Soph #9 Pat Kelly (RH – .313/.345/.521, 0-12-4) came in and won the job from a returning starter and proved that it was the right decision by Erstad as he ended up hitting the most HR's by a FR at Nebraska since 2001 on the way to winning several FR All-American awards and is a pre-season pick for All-Big Ten honors.  He finished in the top ten in the Big Ten in HR's and SLG, providing power at a position usually known for slap hitters.  Kelly is also a very aggressive hitter who had a poor 6/24 BB/K rate.  He did a good job defensively and was one of the better players at 2B in the Big Ten.

SS – SR #7 Bryan Peters (RH – .241/.351/.304, 0-11-2.  '11 – .273/.367/.349, 2-30-12) started at 2B his first two seasons but Kelly took over there in 2012 and he became a reserve.  Peters will be taking over at SS for his SR year due to some shifting around the infield.  He doesn't have much pop in his bat but he will battle at the plate and is already #4 in school history in HBP's.  Peters is a solid athlete who should be able to handle the move defensively from 2B to SS.  Two players who are looking to work their way into playing time and figure to be starters in 2014 are Soph #22 Blake Headley (LH – .304 in 46 AB's) and FR #14 Wes Edrington (RH), who graduated from school a semester early to join the Huskers instead of playing his SR season in HS.

3B – SR #20 Josh Scheffert (RH – .358/.410/.559, 8-41-5.  '11 – .220/.286/.340, 2-18-1) hit poorly as a Soph but bounced back in a big way in 2012 on his way to 2nd team All-Big Ten honors after ending up in the top ten in the Big Ten in AVG, HR and SLG and is a pre-season All-Big Ten pick.  His plate discipline is a little better than the other infielders with an improved 15/24 BB/K ratio last season after having a poor 11/41 BB/K ratio in 2011.  Scheffert is a very good defender who made five errors in 2012, including only one in Big Ten games.

 

Outfield

Nebraska lost only one player from their group of outfielders in 2012 and will have plenty of experienced players and they have moved one of their best players from the infield to the outfield.

LF – SR #2 Chad Christensen (RH – .311/.373/.500, 10-48-7.  '11 – .292/.335/.344, 1-16-5) was drafted in the 35th round but will be a four year starter after deciding to come back for his SR season after he was the 1st team All-Big Ten SS in 2012.  He has moved to the OF and is a pre-season All-Big Ten pick.  Christensen didn't hit for much power earlier in his career but had a big leap in that area in 2012 and led the team in HR and RBI and was among the Big Ten leaders in those categories and also in R, H, TB and SLG.  Nebraska doesn't bunt much but he is one of their better bunters and had 8 SAC's last season.  Christensen will take a big swing at the plate and led the team with 36 K's.  He struggled defensively in 2012 and made 18 errors so moving to the OF should be a good move.

CF – SR #11 Rich Sanguinetti (LH – .323/.371/.419, 2-43-7) came in as a JC transfer and took control of the CF spot in 2012 on his way to earning 1st team All-Big Ten honors.  He usually hit 2nd and would often bunt runners over and was 2nd in the Big Ten with 14 SAC's. Sanguinetti was a productive player who was among the conference leaders in R and RBI. He does a good job on defense and made only one error in 2012.  Like most of his teammates, he is aggressive at the plate and had a below average 16/35 BB/K ratio.

RF – Soph #41 Austin Darby (LH – .324/.389/.432, 2-15-7) is the best pro prospect among the position players and is projected to be among the top 150 players in the 2014 draft.  He was in and out of the lineup early in the season but started to hit well once he became a regular and hit .350 in Big Ten games on the way to earning conference All-Freshman honors.  Darby is a very good athlete who runs well and covers lots of ground in the OF.

DH – JR #4 Michael Pritchard (LH – .387/.447/.434, 0-22-6.  '11 – .304/.393/.315, 0-7-1) was 1st team All-Big Ten after having a 25 game hitting streak, leading the conference in AVG and was in the top five in the conference in H and R and has popped up on some pre-season All-American lists.  He had a shoulder injury last season that limited him to DH duty instead of playing in the OF and he figures to spend most of his time at DH.  Unlike most of his teammates, Pritchard does an outstanding job of making contact and had a terrific 21/10 BB/K ratio in 2012.  He is the leadoff hitter and does not hit for much power with only 11 extra base hits the past two seasons (all doubles) and focuses on spraying the ball all over the field. 


Pitching

  • ERA – 4.40 (8/146)
  • AVG – .291 (10/xx)
  • HR – 27 (6/xx)
  • H's/9 IP – 10.3 (10/217)
  • BB's/9 IP – 3.5 (5/118)
  • K's/9 IP – 5.7 (9/241)
  • WHIP – 1.53 (9/182)

Nebraska used a large number of pitchers last season with seven of them making at least four starts and fourteen of them making at least ten appearances and/or throwing at least twenty innings with nine of those pitchers returning.

 

Starters

Soph #31 Kyle Kubat (LHP – 5-1, 2.63 ERA, 15 apps, 8 GS, 51 IP, 56 H, 19 BB, 31 K, .287 AVG, 1 HR, 4 HBP, 1 WP, 3-5 SB) was a swingman in 2012 and was Nebraska's most effective SP.  He really came on in Big Ten play when he was 4-0 with a 1.57 on his way to earning 3rd team All-Big Ten and FR All-American honors.  Kubat is the #4 prospect among the Soph's in the conference for the 2014 draft with a fastball in the upper 80's and good off-speed pitches. 

JR #27 Zach Hirsch (LHP – 4-5, 5.52 ERA, 14 apps, 13 GS, 60 IP, 80 H, 14 BB, 32 K, .332 AVG, 7 HR, 3 HBP, 0 WP, 3-8 SB) got the ball every weekend and led the team in IP but had trouble getting past the 5th inning despite solid control due to getting way too much of the plate and not fooling too many hitters.

SR #37 Ryan Hander (RHP – 3-0, 2.97 ERA, 16 apps, 4 GS, 33 IP, 29 H, 10 BB, 25 K, .232 AVG, 1 HR, 2 HBP, 2 WP, 6-6 SB) only threw nine innings as a Soph but became an effective middle reliever and midweek starter in 2012 with solid stuff and figures to take on more of starting role.

JR #44 Brandon Pierce (RHP – 5-4, 4.21 ERA, 2 saves, 23 apps, 6 GS, 58 IP, 55 H, 37 BB, 35 K, .249 AVG, 2 HR, 3 HBP, 5 WP, 4-6 SB.  '11 - 0-1, 4.02 ERA, 20 apps, 3 GS, 31 IP, 31 H, 18 BB, 32 K, .265 AVG, 2 HR, 11 HBP, 7 WP, 5-7 SB) was a 26th round pick out of HS and has one of the better arms on the staff but he has had trouble with his control in his first two seasons and averaged 5 BB's per 9 IP. 

The coaching staff thinks highly of three newcomers – FR RHP #28 Jeff Chestnut, FR RHP #25 Colton Howell and JC transfer RHP #33 Christian DeLeon – who could pitch their way into a SP role if one of the other SP's falters.


Relievers

Nebraska lost Travis Huber, their closer in 2012, but returns plenty of experienced pitchers in the bullpen to make up for that.

SR #26 Dylan Vogt (RHP – 2-1, 1.84 ERA, 25 apps, 2 saves, 54 IP, 46 H, 14 BB, 34 K, .241 AVG, 0 HR, 3 HBP, 2 WP, 0-3 SB.  '11 – 3-1, 3.83 ERA, 21 apps, 3 GS, 47 IP, 41 H, 20 BB, 30 K, .236 AVG, 3 HR, 7 HBP, 4 WP, 2-5 SB) will be the closer and was Nebraska's most effective pitcher in 2012.  He was second on the team in IP despite not starting a game and was among the leaders in the Big Ten in appearances.  He improved his control last season to make him much more effective and is tough to hit.

JR #21 Tyler King (LHP – 2-1, 5.40 ERA, 27 apps, 2 GS, 28 IP, 27 H, 18 BB, 21 K, .245 AVG, 2 HR, 5 HBP, 6 WP, 0-0 SB.  '11 – 0-1, 2.21 ERA, 21 apps, 20 IP, 10 H, 18 BB, 16 K, .149 AVG, 0 HR, 2 HBP, 0 WP, 1-4 SB) led the team in appearances in 2012 and is tough to hit due to the movement on his pitches but he also has trouble keeping the ball in the strike zone.

Soph #18 Aaron Bummer (LHP – 1-0, 3.26 ERA, 20 apps, 19 IP, 16 H, 10 BB, 22 K, .219 AVG, 0 HR, 4 HBP, 1 WP, 3-3 SB) was a 31st round pick out of HS and has a good arm and figures to get the ball more this season.

Other pitchers who figure into Nebraska's plans in addition to Chestnut, Howell and DeLeon are RHP's JR #19 Luke Bublitz (2-1, 6.15 ERA, 21 apps, 26 IP) and SR #21 Tyler Niederklein 2-2, 7.11 ERA, 19 apps, 38 IP).  Niederklein had some health issues last season after going 8-3 with a 4.17 ERA and making 13 starts in 2011.

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