LINCOLN — There's been a certain energy in Nebraska's baseball practices this preseason. Coach Darin Erstad started noticing it last fall.
Look at the NU roster and you'll see why.
The Huskers have eight seasoned seniors, all of whom are expected to play significant roles for a team that hasn't met its own expectations in five years. It's a team tired of coming up short (four straight years without an NCAA tournament berth), with players not shy about admitting that. It's why they're motivated to turn things around.
“We haven't really accomplished much in the last few years, but that's something we're striving for,” senior outfielder Rich Sanguinetti said. “I think everyone's really determined to take that next step.”
That was evident to Erstad four months ago. He and the coaches began uncovering and emphasizing the teamwide flaws keeping the Huskers from achieving their goals, and the players responded.
Nebraska's offense produced the eighth-most runs nationally last year, but the production masked base-running mistakes. The Huskers' defense wasn't consistent enough in tightly contested games. And their pitching staff lacked the grit and moxie to bail everyone else out.
Did NU fix its issues?
The Huskers will find out quickly. A grueling nonconference slate starts Friday with four games in three days in California. They'll navigate through road trips to Texas, UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton, all while attempting to remain mentally and physically intact for a wide-open Big Ten race.
The conference doesn't have an excess of elite-level talent, but it's full of quality starters and scrappy hitters, making it tough for any team to pull away from the pack.
Experience has more value in this league than most, though. Nebraska has lots of that.
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But where and how those NU's veterans will make an impact for NU is unclear. The Huskers still have plenty of roles to be defined. And a game's pressure-filled moments are the best proving ground, so Erstad has more to learn about this group.
“There's a natural process you have to go through of getting your nerves calmed down and your adrenaline in check,” he said. “But that's what makes it so exciting and fun.”
Reasons for optimism: Second baseman Pat Kelly and third basemen Josh Scheffert both had breakout seasons at the plate in 2012. And by season's end, both looked comfortable fielding their positions. Kelly's a pure hitter who uses the whole field (batted .313 as a freshman), which is why he can hit anywhere in the lineup. Scheffert's the hard-swinging run-producer who'll presumably get more help in the middle of the order from Kash Kalkowski in the two players' final season for NU.
Reasons for skepticism: Nebraska is replacing starters at arguably the two most important positions on the infield, catcher and shortstop. And if that's not scary enough for NU, know this: None of the three players who've been competing at catcher has Division I experience. Taylor Fish redshirted his first year. Tanner Lubach and Corey Stringer were in junior college last season. Senior Bryan Peters is presumably the starter at shortstop, replacing Chad Christensen, who's taking his production last year (10 home runs and 48 RBIs) to the outfield.
Projected starters: C Lubach, 1B Kalkowski, 2B Kelly (first-team freshman All-American), SS Peters, 3B Scheffert (second-team All-Big Ten)
Key reserves: Sophomore Blake Headley, freshman Wes Edrington, freshman Jake Placzek
Big Ten rank: Second
Injuries to note: Kalkowski (back) sat out most of the fall practices.
Key stat: The departed Cory Burleson, who started 38 games at catcher last year, threw out 20 potential base stealers in 2012, the third-most in the Big Ten. He allowed 18 steals.
Reasons for optimism: Nebraska arguably got stronger in the outfield despite losing veteran left fielder Kale Kiser. It starts with Rich Sanguinetti, who made several highlight-reel defensive plays in center field. The left-hander batted second for the Huskers, leading the team in sacrifice hits (14) while grounding into one double play in 217 at-bats. Christensen will start in left field because sophomore Austin Darby fits well in right. Darby (a sneaky-fast base runner) has that smooth-looking lefty swing, and he's shown that he has some pop. Oh, and just in case anyone needs a breather, junior Michael Pritchard, another left-hander, hit .387 last season as the primary leadoff guy. He'll likely be the designated hitter when he's not on the field.
Reasons for concern: Christensen is a natural outfielder, but he hasn't yet been playing the position for a full year. There could be some growing pains defensively. Sanguinetti can cover some extra ground, but the presumed dropoff behind him is a bit worrisome.
Projected starters: RF Darby (Perfect Game's top summer-ball prospect in the Jayhawk League), CF Sanguinetti (first-team All-Big Ten), LF Christensen (first-team All-Big Ten), DH Pritchard (third-team All-American)
Key reserves: Junior Ty Kildow, redshirt freshman Quentin Urban, Lubach
Big Ten rank: First
Injuries to note: Urban (foot) missed the fall session.
Key stat: Pritchard recorded a hit in 25 straight games last season, tying the third-longest streak in school history. He struck out just 10 times in 212 at-bats.
Reasons for optimism: Sophomore Kyle Kubat, senior Ryan Hander and junior Brandon Pierce — three of Nebraska's top four starting arms — all showed glimpses of their potential toward the end of last season. And the fourth, junior Zach Hirsch, had the best fall season of any Husker. Now junior college transfer Christian DeLeon can be added into the mix, too. Every pitcher seems to have a better grasp of the coaching staff's philosophy, which should help with in-game execution.
Reasons for skepticism: Nebraska's starting pitchers combined to record a 4.87 ERA last year. Improvement's not always guaranteed with age. Nebraska isn't overflowing with pitchers who can overwhelm batters with electric stuff. In other words, the Huskers likely won't get many strikeouts. That's why pitching to contact and staying low in the strike zone is so important for this group. But the Huskers were too hittable last year (allowing the second-most hits in the Big Ten), so they'll have to be more precise.
Projected weekend rotation: LHP Kubat (freshman All-America honoree), RHP Pierce, RHP Hander
Potential starters: LHP Hirsch, RHP DeLeon, freshman RHP Colton Howell
Big Ten rank: Sixth
Injuries to note: Kubat's out during Nebraska's opening weekend because of arm soreness. Hander had hip surgery during the offseason.
Key stat: In 27 games against Big Ten teams, the Huskers allowed at least one run in the first inning of 14 contests. NU won eight of those.
Reasons for optimism: Name the possible scenario, and senior Dylan Vogt was probably asked to pitch through it last year. He never started a game, but he logged 53 innings, the second-most among Huskers. He entered as early as the second inning, worked out of jams in the sixth and closed games at the end. Vogt's technically the closer, but he'll pitch whenever he's needed. Junior lefty Tyler King led the team with 27 appearances last year. And Luke Bublitz, if he doesn't transform into a starter, has experience out of the pen as well.
Reasons for skepticism: The best teams in the Big Ten last year had two or three reliable and versatile guys like Vogt. Nebraska needs others to step up. As a whole, the Huskers' bullpen held leads well last season, but seemed to crumble when the pressure was on to keep the game close. And they'd often be a strike or two away from wiggling out of a jam, yet would fail to escape unscathed. It was no fluke that opponents outscored a potent NU offense 39-25 in the seventh inning.
Top relievers: RHP Vogt, LHP King, RHP Bublitz, junior RHP Josh Roeder
Potential contributors: Sophomore LHP Aaron Bummer, senior RHP Tyler Niederklein, sophomore RHP Michael Hoppes, junior RHP Caleb Hawkins
Big Ten rank: Sixth
Injuries to note: Austin Christensen and Matt Jones are out after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Hoppes (Tommy John) just started throwing again. Niederklein (hip) is still working his way back to full strength.
Key stat: The Huskers were 29-3 when leading after five innings last season.
WORLD-HERALD BIG TEN TEAM RANKINGS
1. Nebraska: An experienced team now knows what to expect in Year Two of Big Ten play. It has to first survive nonconference play, though.
2. Indiana: No squad has more young talent, but an unproven pitching staff might keep the Hoosiers from the title.
3. Illinois: Pitcher Kevin Johnson and outfielder Jordan Parr chose not to sign MLB contracts because they want a Big Ten crown.
4. Michigan State: The Spartans' leaders are gone, but a solid core returns, especially on the mound.
5. Minnesota: The conference's best pitching staff is in Minneapolis. But will the Gophers be able to hit?
6. Ohio State: Maybe a darkhorse here. This team returns nearly everyone, but faces arguably the toughest conference schedule.
7. Michigan: It's a lot to ask, but if the Wolverines' talented outfielders can carry the load, they'll have a shot in every league series.
8. Penn State: The two best offensive weapons are gone from the worst-hitting team (.252) in the Big Ten last year.
9. Purdue: Complete rebuilding mode for the 2012 champs. The Boilermakers lost their four best pitchers and seven starting position players.
10. Iowa: A young squad last year is still quite young. Pitching could keep the Hawkeyes relevant, though.
11. Northwestern: The good and bad news for the Wildcats, who finished last in 2012: They will have plenty of familiar faces back.