With the Huskers opening their baseball season on Friday, it's time we finish up the player previews. I'll run down the bullpen today, while catchers and DH candidates will be previewed tomorrow.
It would be difficult to overstate what the loss of Brett Jensen, Nebraska's all-time saves leader. For the past three years or so, he's been the rock of the eighth and ninth innings. With his departure in the 14th round to the Tigers, a ripple effect will course through the Nebraska bullpen.
However, this shouldn't be misconstrued as a weakness, but simply a changing of the guard. There are no fewer than nine freshman or redshirt freshman pitchers on the roster, so it will be interesting to see who contributes out of that group, and who redshirts.
Sophomore Erik Bird, an Omaha Burke product, is slated to step in as the closer. If his numbers last season are indicitave of his talent, Nebraska should be set for the next two seasons. Bird, in 22.0 innings pitched, allowed just a .216 batting average while putting up a team-low 0.82 ERA. He only struck out nine, but he also only walked four. In 78 at-bats, he allowed just one extra-base hit. If he can improve his mediocre strikeout rate, he has the potential to be dominant. His chances to do so should be good, too. According to the Huskers' official site:
"[Bird] worked on improving his velocity and off-speed assortment and has been consistently one of NU's top pitchers in off-season work. [He] has a fearless mentality on the mound and has poise and maturity beyond his age."
The Rest of the Bullpen
Among the other contributers will be some of the following, in my estimation:
(listed in no particular order)
- Senior Mike Harmelink came back from Tommy John surgery after the 2005 season to post a 5.68 ERA. That's misleading, however, as he struck out 13 in 12.2 innings of work, walked only two, and allowed a batting average of only .260. Harmelink's experience will serve him well on this young staff. Of note is the fact that Harmenlink was the only HUsker pitcher to not get absolutely shelled in the Red/White Series, pitching 6.2 innings while striking out six and allowing only one hit.
- Redshirt freshman Tim Scott has dropped to a lower arm slot at the suggestion of Husker pitching coach Dave Bingham, which should pay off for him. He was one of the best baseball and basketball players in the state of Minnesota in high school, and posted a reasonable 4.11 ERA for the Kansas City Sluggers during his redshirt season. Could be a darkhorse candidate for a setup position, or most likely a situational reliever.
- Sophomore Zach Herr shared set-up duties with Erik Bird last year, and will continue that role in 2007. The only difference will be that Herr, a southpaw, will have a new right-handed partner and will be setting up Bird instead of Jensen. Herr was second on the team with a 2.05 ERA, while he had a 18:7 SO:BB ratio over 22.0 innings.
- Junior Matt Foust could be the right-handed compliment to Herr this season. After shedding some weight, he's imporoved his command and velocity, as he's throwing in the low 90's.He's a candidate to be a mid-week starter, but with his lack of starting experience at Nebraska, looks more likely to work out of the pen.
- Freshman Charlie Shaver is a leftie with a great curveball. Shaver posted an ERA of 1.12 with 61 strikeouts in 43.2 innings for Elkhorn High in his senior year, and then led all of Nebraska in strikeouts in Legion ball. As a personal aside, I recall Shaver when he played rec league baseball in middle school (I'm from Elkhorn). My dad coached teams with Shaver on them for a couple seasons, and he was a good pitcher even then. Since those days, he's grown to a 6-3, 210 lb pitcher that throws in the upper 80's. He could make an impact as a freshman if he's not redshirted.
- Junior Luke Wertz owns the third lowest ERA by a returning reliever, and should be able to build on that success in 2007. In 15.0 innings' work last season, he posted a 13:7 SO:BB ratio while batters hit only .236 against him. Wertz had arthroscopic surgery on the shoulder he injured last season, causing him to miss fall practice, but he's at full health for 2007.
- Freshman Brian Feekin is a big southpaw from Papillion-La Vista. He's 6-6 and 245 lbs, and was named the third-best high school prospect in the state by Baseball America. He led all Nebraska high schoolers last year with 70 strikeouts, and is he's not redshirted, could make a big splash with the Huskers.