Baseball: NU's Luis Alvarado holds off on pros to pitch in for the Huskers

Luis Alvarado not only leads Nebraska in doubles this season with six, but he also is giving the team some innings out of the bullpen.

LINCOLN — For as long as Luis Alvarado can remember, he wanted to be a professional baseball player. And everyday life hasn’t let him forget it.

He grew up idolizing David Ortiz and the Boston Red Sox. When Alvarado made the Puerto Rican national team as a wide-eyed 12-year-old, his teammate at second base was the son of former major league infielder Jose Valentin. In high school, he played on the same club squad as Carlos Correa — the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft — and still shares a hitting coach with the Houston Astros superstar.

The Nebraska outfielder’s career took a turn during the summer of 2013, when he left home to spend his junior year of high school at Montverde Academy in Florida. He became fluent in English while growing more serious about academics and his favorite sport.

But the biggest discovery Alvarado made was the existence of college baseball.

The only child of parents with university degrees made a vow to his mother: He would put his studies ahead of going pro. With the way baseball is structured in the U.S., he could work on both goals at the same time.

A friend of his Puerto Rico coach put Alvarado in touch with Husker coach Darin Erstad — himself a former major leaguer — and the do-everything player visited Lincoln on a late spring recruiting visit in which he saw snow for the first time. The facilities, hospitality and down-to-earth players quickly won him over.

Alvarado’s college conviction was put to the test two months later, when Boston selected him in the 33rd round of the 2014 draft. He opted to become a Husker instead.

“Even though I had a chance from the Red Sox — and it’s a big deal — I was like, ‘I made a promise and this is what I want,’ ” Alvarado said. “I wanted to study first, and whatever happens after that happens.”

Since then, the son of a boxing trainer has fought for everything at Nebraska. He cracked the lineup early, making the All-Big Ten freshman team, and became the regular left fielder last season while hitting .251.

Now the 6-foot-3, 204-pound junior is taking a new approach in his professional pursuit while also improving Nebraska’s outlook this spring. After not having thrown off a mound in four seasons while focusing on hitting, Alvarado reached out to coaches at the end of last year with a welcome question. Would they mind if he started competing for a role as a pitcher?

“It’s not easy to be a two-way player and this was the year he wanted to give it a try,” Erstad said. “We’re not going to force anything on anybody, but when he wanted to do it, we’re all for it.

“When it comes out of his hand like it does, it’s just one of those things. Why not have fun and maximize your potential? He can have a future on the mound someday, you never know. Just keeps his options open. He loves to compete and any time we can use our best player, we’re going to try.”

Alvarado pitched one inning in the Cape Cod League last summer — allowing two hits and striking out three for the Bourne Braves — and returned to Lincoln in the fall with a new confidence. Armed with a fastball that sits between 90 to 93 mph, a change-up and self-learned “slurve,” he became one of Nebraska’s most talented bullpen arms.

“I used to throw fast,” Alvarado said with a smile. “That’s something I knew I could do.”

Alvarado has made three scoreless appearances of one inning each. In his second chance Feb. 26 against Utah, he earned his first save at any level in Nebraska’s 4-3 victory.

That experience showed Alvarado why being a two-way player as a reliever is perhaps more difficult than being a starter. He quickly warmed up early in the top of the ninth that day, then ran to the on-deck circle to wait for an at-bat that didn’t happen. Moments later he was on the mound, gathering himself after giving up a lead-off single by inducing a strikeout, flyout and groundout.

Alvarado receives one or two innings of notice before coming in to pitch. He keeps his throws in the outfield limited during breaks and must be ready to switch his mindset when called upon.

“The mental side is always challenging,” Alvarado said. “I have taught myself that whatever happened hitting has happened already — I can’t do anything about it. What I can do something about is pitching, so I just forget everything and go pitch.”

Hitting .259 with a team-best six doubles in 13 games, Alvarado continues to contribute offensively. And he has played error-free in the outfield, even gunning down an Oklahoma State runner at home from left to wow the crowd at the Frisco Classic two weeks ago.

Alvarado said his adjustment to the Midwest has been smooth. A little less rice and a little more corn. Not as much Spanish speaking, though he can converse in his native tongue with freshman outfielder Joe Acker.

And right now, Alvarado is content to put his pro ambitions on hold while working to see how good Nebraska can be.

“In Puerto Rico, they say, ‘No one is going to draft you because you put down a good bunt for the team,’ ” Alvarado said. “So coming here was like, ‘OK, now I have to start playing for the team and get in that mindset.’ But all the coaches and players made it easy. It’s been fun.”

Evan Bland covers Nebraska football, baseball and other sports for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @EvanBlandOWH.

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