LINCOLN — You figure Darin Erstad would be the one bug that broke the windshield.
Nebraska's baseball coach has gone headfirst every day of his baseball career. He wakes up each morning with dirt already on his pajamas.
Hates to lose? More than he loved winning.
I remember after the last game of his Nebraska career, a heartbreaking 8-7 loss to Oklahoma State in the 1995 Big Eight baseball tournament. Erstad sat alone in the dugout, with tears streaming down from beneath his mirror sunglasses. Nobody dared approach him.
That feeling came back, as Erstad walked purposefully to the media after Saturday's 19-9 loss to Michigan, on the biggest and most important stage of his young coaching career.
The Huskers had been chasing .500 most of this season, chasing hope. And now, finally, on the last day of the season, hope had arrived.
Beat Michigan and NU could secure a tie for the Big Ten regular-season title with an Ohio State win over Indiana. A victory and an IU win over Ohio State meant the Huskers would be a No. 2 seed in the Big Ten tourney and secure a first-round bye.
Modest goals, perhaps, by Dave Van Horn standards. But for a program that hadn't won a league title since 2005 or made an NCAA regional since 2008, this was the biggest day in a long time.
You could feel it. Haymarket Park was packed, and buzzing, the good weather and Big Ten stakes colliding at the right time.
What they saw was another collision. Bug, meet windshield.
Michigan ripped 22 singles and one double, for good measure. Eight Nebraska pitchers threw a combined 204 pitches.
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The Wolverines (29-25, 14-10 Big Ten) scored 15 runs after it was 4-4. The six-run fifth inning started after a throwing error by NU shortstop Bryan Peters on a routine double-play ball.
It was four hours of torture for Husker fans, who weren't in the mood. The majority of the big crowd had filed out by the eighth inning.
In what looked like the first breakthrough moment for Erstad the coach, his team tripped going up the stairs. It was not pretty.
And so here came the coach, walking briskly to the media after a short team meeting in the outfield. Who wants to ask the first question?
Erstad looked at a box score, shrugged and said, “Sometimes you're the bug and sometimes you're the windshield. It was pretty evident what we were today.”
There you have it. Baseball philosophy 101. But what else is there to say?
Erstad has to keep his players' heads up. They have to win four games at Target Field next week to win the league tourney. The Huskers are the No. 3 seed now, and will play Michigan again on Wednesday.
Their lack of pitching depth makes them a long shot. Three pitchers are out with injuries, including Christian DeLeon, their best arm. DeLeon could return next week. But even if he does, losing two of three to Michigan at home on the last weekend (and giving up 26 runs) isn't a good sign.
Whatever happens this week, the Huskers made it close this year — closer than anyone thought after a 0-7 start. This was an older team, with a big-boy schedule, and nobody really knew what to expect.
But if you were expecting the Husker legend coach to walk in and wave a magic wand, now you know better. Erstad didn't swing a magic wand as a player. His game was competitive toughness.
This team didn't have nearly enough of that. Blowing the little details plagued the Huskers all season. The fifth-inning error on Saturday was a prime example. That's a play you have to make.
When Erstad was asked if he was surprised by how the game went, he said no, because of his team's pitching depth. But he also lamented his team not taking “enough pride” in making the plays with so much on the line.
This will be interesting to watch in Erstad's career here. The great ones rarely can teach what made them great. Erstad can't possibly expect his players to be him. But teaching mental toughness will be his mark as a coach.
There was excitement and buzz when Erstad left his lawn mower and home life for the Big Red dugout. But you have to remember he had never been a coach before, at any level. He's learning on the go.
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He's not afraid to fail. That's a good thing. Erstad took a gamble with his nonconference schedule this year. It ended up putting his team in perfect RPI position to get an NCAA at-large bid — with a few more wins.
He did it to make his team tougher, but the Huskers couldn't win a home series when they had to in May, with the stakes on the grill and the home field packed.
The people came out to see a revival. Not of 2001. That's gone. Won't be repeated. Different coach, different era.
As good as Van Horn and Rob Childress were, they had one advantage: They built their program as the hunter, chasing Texas and Oklahoma State and Baylor at the top. Nobody in the Big 12 took them seriously.
Like Van Horn did, Erstad is trying to teach the program how to win. But he's doing it as the hunted, the program everyone in the Big Ten wants to knock off.
Big Ten teams play inspired at Haymarket Park. The Northwestern team toured the place, in awe. Ohio State, Indiana and Michigan all came in and took series.
If they're excited now, wait until the Big Ten teams show up at TD Ameritrade Park a year from now, when the Big Ten tourney comes to downtown Omaha.
What type of Nebraska team will come to Omaha? Will Nebraska be in Omaha? The Huskers will be young next year, but should be stronger on the mound with DeLeon, Kyle Kubat, Aaron Bummer and Josh Roeder back.
For now, the head philosopher is trying to focus on this week, and getting enough wins to avoid only the third losing Nebraska baseball season in the last 20 years (along with 1997 and 2009).
To do that, the Big Red would win four straight and earn the Big Ten title and NCAA bid.
Now that's what you call wiper fluid.
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