Now, 16 years after leaving the University of Nebraska as a player, Darin Erstad returns for his second consecutive season as an assistant coach. Junior catcher Cory Burleson sums up his addition with one word: Fire.
“Coach Erstad has brought a lot of passion and energy to our team,” says Cornhusker third baseman Cody Asche (.311/.369/.522). “All the hitters and outfielders love being around him…He’s brought a good approach to teaching offensive philosophy for our team.”
Now, fire is exactly what the Nebraska offense needs. The lineup loses 25 home runs from the departures of middle-of-the-order hitters D.J. Belfonte (.376/.461/.560) and Adam Bailey (.368/.431/.691), but head coach Mike Anderson thinks a change in offensive philosophy from last year’s squad is what the 2011 Huskers need to succeed.
“You look at the last 10 years, the two teams that led the conference in bunts and sacrifice bunts were Texas and Nebraska,” says Anderson. “Last year, we were the lowest. We were about 230th in sacrifice bunts in the country…You’ll see some small ball, you’ll see some running, you’ll see some hit and run.”
Erstad and Asche are only two prominent returnees to the Huskers, who finished a disappointing 27-27 (10-17) last season and did not receive a postseason invite. Six starting position players return, including Asche, Kale Kiser (.345/.467/.476), Bryan Peters (.268/.366/.317), Josh Scheffert (.301/.409/.469), Chad Christensen (.262/.336/.437), and Patric Tolentino (.248/.336/.301).
Kiser and Scheffert will both move from the infield to help form a formidable outfield. Scheffert, who Anderson calls “the most versatile kid on our team right now”, will also get work in relief on the mound.
“Those two guys got asked if they would be willing to [change positions] and they both accepted it,” says Asche. “That’s a big part of being a team player. We respect that a lot out of them.”
The rotation loses only 15 of its 54 starts from last season, but 14 of those are from 2010 Friday starter Michael Mariot (6-6, 4.70, 95.2 IP) now a member of the Kansas City Royals organization. Sophomore Tom Lemke (5-6, 5.34, 60.2 IP), whose biggest issue in 2010 was consistency, projects to step into Mariot’s spot in the rotation with sophomore Tyler Niederklein (3-1, 3.09, 35 IP) following him. Right now, Jon Keller and Sean Yost will fight for the third spot, but Mike Anderson’s biggest concern with his rotation may be the status of freshman Logan Ehlers.
Ehlers, a Blue Jays’ eighth-round pick in the 2010 draft, turned down an $800,000 offer from Toronto to attend NU. However, now eligibility issues stir in Lincoln for the southpaw from Nebraska City, as Husker nation awaits an NCAA ruling on whether Randy Rowley, Ehler’s adviser, acted as an agent in negotiating with the Blue Jays organization. The Omaha World-Herald reports that in a similar situation in 2002, the NCAA ruled a six-game suspension for then-Vanderbilt pitcher Jeremy Sowers. Ehlers is currently ineligible to play, but has been practicing with the team.
Partly because of Ehler’s unsure situation, senior Casey Hauptman’s (2-5, 4.28, 73.2 IP) role is still unsettled, much like it has been his first three years in Lincoln. Hauptman appeared in 23 games in 2010, starting four of them and has played the role of everything-man for Anderson in his time at Nebraska.
“One of the things that Casey has done in this program is he’s had a number of different roles,” explains Anderson. “I think his best spot with his fastball, slider movement is to be near the end of games. Now, he’s in a role that I think for him personally, for us and for him down the road professionally is probably in the finishing role or short relief.”
“I’ve been in almost every role possible in the last three years,” Hauptman says. “Really, being in the bullpen is kind of like coach said, it’s where I like to be.”
Anderson may need that veteran presence out of the bullpen, which he deems “the first and foremost thing we need to shore up”. Freshman Brandon Pierce, who chose Nebraska over Big XII rivals Texas and Texas A&M, may end up playing a bigger role than most freshman relievers in the country. With an unsure starting rotation, Pierce could be a big energizer in relief. Mike Anderson has already credited him as a player that might end up “finishing games” along with Hauptman.
“If you talk to Brandon Pierce, he kind of likes to compare himself to Brian Wilson, the closer for the San Francisco Giants, just that off-character, loud guy,” says Burleson. “We really, really like it. He’s got to be held back every once in a while, but with guys like that you just kind of let him go.”
Nebraska seldom has back-to-back losing seasons, but that is what the Cornhuskers have in their rear-view mirror as they head into 2011. With no individual to replace Adam Bailey’s production, Anderson wants the entire team to move to small ball.
“I learned a valuable lesson back in 1999 when we had Ken Harvey,” Anderson elucidates. “He led the nation in hitting. He was exceptional, and I watched our team develop a completely different identity next year.”
Like the 2000 team with Harvey, which went 51-17 after his departure, the 2011 Cornhuskers do not have to replace Bailey’s production. As Burleson would say, they just need fire.