LINCOLN — A year ago, Colby Gomes was just showing up to baseball diamonds and playing. None of the video scouting. None of the personal analytics breakdowns or retooling of his swing.
“Nebraska high school pitching isn’t the best,” said Gomes, a Nebraska freshman and Millard West graduate. “I assume all of you guys know that.”
His 18-year-old classmate, shortstop Spencer Schwellenbach, surely feels the same about prep talent in Michigan, where he earned the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year honor as a senior. Now he’s not just playing “for fun” but for bigger ideas like the Nebraska brand and a Big Ten title.
Both freshmen are key contributors for the Huskers (22-14, 11-4 Big Ten), who lurk percentage points behind first-place Indiana in the league standings and carry a solid postseason résumé into this weekend’s home series against Illinois (26-13, 6-6). They headline a class — rated 37th nationally by Perfect Game — that has helped resuscitate the program following last year’s injury-plagued disappointment.
Coach Darin Erstad’s eighth freshman class has featured the greatest depth of quick-impact players in at least four years and has an argument with the 2015 team — think Jake Meyers, Scott Schreiber, Luis Alvarado and Garett King — for the top spot.
“As far as handling the stuff that they’ve handled this year, I think they’ve done a great job,” Erstad said. “They’re young and there’s going to be mistakes, but I just like how they go about their business. They’re good kids, they’re holding their own in the classroom. It’s just been a pleasure to be around them.”
There’s Schwellenbach, a preseason Big Ten freshman of the year favorite who has started 25 games and is flashing average (.306), power (three homers) and speed (five steals). Gomes owns eight saves and a 3.29 ERA while also starting 26 games in the lineup. He’s hitting just .226 — “Everything has just been difficult. Baseball’s hard,” he said — but has also been a standout defender at first base.
Gomes and Cam Chick have both earned freshman of the week honors in the league, with Chick’s hot streak at third base coming in the wake of Schwellenbach’s sprained ankle last month. Two more in-state arms have also thrived, with lefty Kyle Perry (Millard South) claiming the midweek starting role most of the year and Shay Schanaman (Grand Island) emerging as a high-leverage bullpen option (1.54 ERA in 11⅔ innings).
Two other relievers have earned five appearances each in Bo Blessie and Tyler Martin. Blessie, drafted in the 36th round of last year’s major league draft, has allowed one run in five innings. Martin, from Webb City, Missouri, had been nearly spotless before Iowa roughed him up for five runs a week ago.
Erstad said freshmen need to own a variety of traits to make such a quick jump to college baseball. Control of their emotions might be No. 1 — after all, the failure rate spikes after years of dominating the prep scene. Loving and understanding the game translates into doing things on the field coaches can’t teach.
“I feel like we all try our very hardest in practice and show the coaches that we’re good enough to play,” Schwellenbach said. “And I think (Erstad) has done a good job of giving us a chance.”
Illinois at Nebraska
Haymarket Park, Lincoln
Radio: Husker Sports Network
Video: BTN on Friday; NET/BTN2Go on Saturday; BTN Plus on Sunday
7:35 p.m. Friday: RH Matt Waldron (5-0, 1.84 ERA) vs. LH Andy Fisher (4-1, 3.19)
2:05 p.m. Saturday: LH Nate Fisher (4-2, 2.81) vs. RH Ty Weber (3-1, 2.79)
11:05 a.m. Sunday: RH Reece Eddins (4-2, 3.86) vs. RH Cyrillo Watson (4-1, 3.26)
Scouting Nebraska: The Huskers (22-14, 11-4) dropped their first league series last weekend at Iowa but remain percentage points behind first-place Indiana in the standings. NU is just 6-5 in its past 11 games, and the biggest common thread in the recent struggles has been hitting with runners in scoring position (18 for 105, good for a .171 average). That number includes 7 for 48 (.146) at Iowa and 4 for 32 (.125) at Penn State the week before that. ... Nebraska's rotation has remained unchanged and consistently stellar through five Big Ten weekends, posting a 2.03 ERA in that span. The average starting line from Waldron, Fisher and Eddins: 6 2/3 innings, 4.8 hits, 1.5 earned runs, 0.9 walks, 4.9 strikeouts. ... Two Nebraska regulars are hitting .300 in right fielder Aaron Palensky (.333) and shortstop Spencer Schwellenbach (.306). Center fielder Joe Acker (.299) is just below that plateau as he works through a 6-for-39 (.154) slump.
Scouting Illinois: The conference season has been turbulent for the Illini (26-13, 6-6) after they won 17 of their first 21 games and earned a Top 25 ranking. They were swept by Iowa and lost a series to Maryland, then took a series at Minnesota and swept Penn State. ... Pitching and defense have been the constants. Illinois leads the league and is eighth nationally in fielding percentage (.981). The program's 3.51 ERA is 25th in the country, and all three of its upperclassman weekend starters are top 18 in the Big Ten in that category. ... The lineup lost last year's Big Ten player of the year in Bren Spillane and his 23 home runs, and has regressed from a top-75 scoring unit to 178th (5.5 runs/game). Two hitters boast some of the best Big ten batting averages in Grant Van Scoy (.353) and Michael Massey (.343, with four homers). Van Scoy, a senior infielder, is a former standout at Papillion-La Vista and Southeast Community College
Dugout chatter: Illinois leads the all-time series 10-9 after taking two of three from Nebraska in last year's regular-season finale. The Illini went 33-20 overall in 2018. ... The weekend forecast calls for temperatures in the mid-60s with cloudy skies and no chance of precipitation. ... Illinois currently has the best RPI of any remaining scheduled Husker opponent at 23. NU sits at 37.