LINCOLN — His first game in the most reputable summer baseball league was in the books, and Nebraska’s best hitter sat with the rest of his befuddled teammates trying to figure out what exactly he got himself into.
Junior Pat Kelly had just gone hitless in four at-bats, striking out twice. The rest of the lineup managed just four hits in a 2-0 loss.
Kelly remembers looking at his coach, who summed it all up by saying this: Welcome to the Cape Cod League.
“He was like, ‘Well, that’s a typical Cape pitcher.’ And everyone’s like, ‘Holy crap,’ ” Kelly said.
That day it was UNLV’s Erick Fedde, who ended up leaving the league midway through the summer to throw on the USA Collegiate National Team. The right-hander, a rising junior, used his dancing fastball to give Kelly and his teammates fits for 62⁄3 innings.
“He cut us up. He was breaking bats, everything,” Kelly said.
And there were more guys like Fedde. Many more.
NU junior Aaron Bummer, who also pitched in the league, told Kelly that there was one reliever who never threw under 97 mph all summer. From what Kelly could tell, either the opposing pitcher was hurling somewhere between 91 to 94 mph or he wasn’t missing his spot with a heater consistently touching 88 mph. The scouting reports came solely from observations in warmups and dugout chatter. Factor in every guy’s lethal off-speed arsenal, and Kelly was left scrambling for a strategy between each pitch.
“If you slump out there, it’s pretty tough because you’re seeing someone’s ace every night,” Kelly said. “But if you’re going to play at the next level, you’ve got to face that kind of competition.”
The NU starting second baseman called it a “learning summer,” a daily tutorial that just happened to take place in front of a dozen MLB scouts each time out. But he appreciated the challenge.
Kelly hit .242, totaling just three extra base hits in 26 games. He was held without a hit in 10 games. His team was shut out four times.
But it’s those kinds of constant tests that help you improve, said Husker coach Darin Erstad. And Erstad has noticed a difference during fall practice.
The Huskers have been practicing for the last month, using their allotted offseason sessions to mix in 18 newcomers. Kelly’s one of the vets now, though. He’ll get a chance to showcase his improvements during the Red-White Series, which begins at 3:20 p.m. Tuesday at Haymarket Park.
“He’s so much more under control of his emotions, of his at-bats — he still plays hard, but there’s a control to it,” Erstad said.
It looks as if things have “slowed down” for Kelly this past month, Erstad said. Kelly led the Huskers with 15 RBIs in practice.
That’s what Nebraska will need from him next spring. Gone are five veteran position players who accounted for 45.5 percent of the team’s hits, 50.1 percent of its runs and 48.1 percent of its RBIs.
Now, it’s Kelly’s turn. He can use the summer, despite those frustration-filled nights, to prepare himself for that expanded role.
“That’s the journey as a ballplayer,” Erstad said. “You need to go out there on your own and work your way through it against great competition.”