Nebraska exceeded expectations in 2016. The Big Ten’s western-most program was not expected to be among the top three contenders for the Big Ten championship in the preseason, the favorites being Indiana, Maryland and Michigan. But the team finished a half-game behind champion Minnesota and reached the NCAA Tournament. For head coach Darin Erstad and the Huskers, it was a second regional appearance in three years, after claiming their third second-place finish in four seasons.
A program with great tradition, Nebraska seeks consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances for the first time since 2007-08. Through two weekends of play, the team has an uphill battle in their quest to be a part of the field of 64. The Huskers sit 2-4 on the season after a rain-shortened opening weekend resulted in a two-game split versus UC Riverside and a 1-3 showing in the Big Ten – Pac-12 Baseball Challenge. Through the half-dozen games, Nebraska is batting .243 and the Huskers have crossed home plate only 20 times, averaging 3.3 runs per game.
A six-game start isn’t doom to a team’s postseason odds. But a year after exceeding expectations, the weight of what’s expected this season has Erstad waiting for his team to just play baseball.
Nebraska’s returned its top three hitters from its 37-22 club, a .281-hitting outfit a year ago. With juniors Jake Meyers and Scott Schreiber and senior Ben Miller, the top of the Husker order was expected to be potent. Meyers led the team with a .326 average, barely eclipsing Schreiber’s .325 mark, while Miller hit to the tune of .317. Schreiber’s 16 home runs were a Big Ten-best with Meyers and Schreiber combining for 28 doubles. Add junior left fielder Luis Alvarado and sophomore catcher Jesse Wilkening, a strong offensive core was expected to lead the Huskers.
But through six games, the abilities shown prior have yet to come through.
Alvarado is batting .308 with three doubles, a nice start to his third season in Lincoln. But he is the lone returning starter performing at an expected level. Schreiber is batting .250 without an extra-base hit, with Meyers and Miller a combined 8-for-48 on the season, a .166 average. Wilkening showed well as a freshman, batting .270 in 111 at-bats, but has only recorded two hits in 11 at-bats.
The sample sizes are small, it’s not unusual for a player to have a slump over the course of a half-dozen games, but when many key contributors are in a rut it’s hard for a team to get going.
What’s causing the funk? Did the returning players suddenly lose skill? Not to Erstad. Following Friday’s 7-5 loss to Utah, where the team left the bases loaded to end three of the first four innings, Erstad mentioned the slow starts may be a result of the players attempting too much to build off of the strong 2016 seasons.
“Right now we have some guys in their own heads a little bit, trying to have the seasons they’re supposed to have,” Erstad said. “I just want to get back to the bottom line of competing.”
For Meyers and Schreiber, as juniors, it is a draft year, while Miller opted to return to Nebraska after being a 32nd-round pick in last June’s draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates.
But while the offensive output yet to come from the heart of the lineup, the players stepping into the spotlight for the first time have had no such problems. Nebraska closed out the weekend with a 4-3 win over Utah, spurred by a new-look 1-2 punch.
Batting leadoff, freshman outfielder Mojo Hagge went 3-for-5 while sophomore infielder Angelo Altavilla added two hits in five at-bats in the two-hole. On the young season, the two have combined for 16 hits in 33 at-bats. Altavilla and Hagge can’t be expected to continue to hit at their respective .444 and .533 clips for the rest of the season, but their emergence and shown ability against very good pitching gives Nebraska seven capable bats in the lineup, welcomed contributions as Erstad says “we’re going to need it from all different parts.”
Now it’s time for the veterans to do their part.
“The guys that have a track record haven’t started to hit yet,” Erstad said. “It’s one of those things where we’ll keep throwing them out there and they’ll do their thing. We just need to get back to the basics with a lot of those guys and quit trying to do too much.”
The parts are there for Nebraska to have a season which ends in the NCAA Tournament. Knocking off the defending Pac-12 champions shows what the Huskers are capable of. It’s just a matter of time for it all to come together, newcomers and returners alike to contribute up and down the lineup.
“Our returners are putting so much stinking pressure on themselves right now to have big years, and sometimes that happens. At some point, they’re going to hit the tilt button and it’s going to be ‘screw it, let’s just play baseball.'”