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Huskers Stumble Into Third Weekend Of Big Ten Play

Coach Erstad has some work to do before Nebraska can be a consistent contender again.
Coach Erstad has some work to do before Nebraska can be a consistent contender again.

Hey all. First off, I'm not dead. Spring break allowed me to enjoy a blissful week cut off from the outside world, and then life struck back with an avalanche of homework and a hard drive failure on my laptop. So we've got some catching up to do, let's talk baseball.

The Huskers have stumbled a bit since taking a 3-0 series lead against the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs a couple weeks ago. In their last 11 games, NU is just 6-5, losing eyebrow-raisers to non-BCS foes Louisiana Tech and Northern Colorado, while frankly embarrassing themselves last weekend against Northwestern. On the brighter side of things, the Huskers notched a couple of nice wins against a solid Kansas State squad and won their first ever Big Ten series 2-1 over the Fighting Illini from Champaign, Illinois.

I said it a few weeks ago, and I'm saying it again today: this is the reality of Nebraska baseball right now. We have a young, inconsistent team. When these guys are focused and playing well, they are really legitimately good. When they play poorly, they can lose to pretty much anybody. I believe that Darin Erstad's team has it in them to make a substantial run into the post season. Unfortunately, in order to do that, they must not lose highly winnable games. Good teams take care of business. Going out to Chicago to play a Northwestern team that was something like 8-14 at the time should have meant a sweep for the Huskers. Dropping a game to the Wildcats was bad. Losing the series was an embarrassment. The Huskers are not a good team right now. They are a very talented team with a very high ceiling, but until Coach Erstad marshals that talent and gets his team to realize their potential, we will continue to scratch our heads after losses like this.

I don't mean to come down hard on Erstad by saying these things. He inherited a young team and also inherited a culture of apathy and losing that developed over the last few years. These are very difficult things to overcome, and I have no doubt that they can't be overcome in one year. In the intermediate to long run, however, Erstad's success or failure will ride on whether or not he can harness the talent on his team (and make no mistake, this team is talented) and build it into a consistent winner.

On to the game reviews for the past week:

March 27: Kansas State (in Lincoln)

For those of you who have followed the Huskers so far this year, Game 2 against the Kansas State Wildcats probably surprised you. In a reversal for their normal M.O. the Huskers seized an early 5-0 lead and were forced to hold off a KSU surge ultimately winning 6-3. Starting pitcher Brandon Pierce had three solid innings, giving up just 2 hits and more importantly, no runs, as he left the game with the Huskers on top, 5-0. I wouldn't call the relief effort by the NU bullpen "dazzling" but they did just enough to keep KSU from seriously threatening. On the offensive side of things, Rich Sanguinetti was the man of the hour, getting a career-best three base hits on a day that the KSU relievers were doing well, yielding just 8 hits to NU overall. Husker closer Travis Huber continued to be quite reliable in relief, retiring the Wildcats in order in the top of the ninth to record his fourth save of the year.

Nebraska (18-9): 6, Kansas State (13-11): 3

W: Brandon Pierce, NU (3-1)

L: Matt Wivinis, KSU (1-1)

S: Travis Huber, NU (4)

Attendance: 4155

March 30: Northwestern (in Evanston, IL)

Game 1 of the NU-NU series was a mess if you like pitching duels. The two squads combined for 28 hits, with Northwestern outhitting the Huskers 15-13 in a losing effort. Husker starting pitcher Tom Lemke struggled to record outs, surrendering 11 hits through six innings of service. Where he did reasonably well, however, was making sure most of those batters did not reach home, as Northwestern recorded just 3 runs on those hits. After Tyler King struggled in the 7th, Dylan Vogt and Travis Huber (who are rapidly becoming NU's most reliable relievers) held the Wildcats off the scoreboard the rest of the way, clinching a 7-4 win for the Huskers. As with Northwestern, there was no shortage of hits to be had for Husker batters. Michael Pritchard, Kash Kalkowski, Richard Stock, Pat Kelly, and Cory Burleson all had multi-hit games for the Huskers, and they were all needed as it never really felt like Nebraska had salted away this back and forth game.

Nebraska (19-9): 7, Northwestern (8-15): 4

W: Tom Lemke, Nebraska (3-2)

L: Francis Brooke, Northwestern (1-2)

S: Travis Huber, Nebraska (5)

Attendance: 256 (welcome to baseball in the Big Ten, folks. Fun fact: Nebraska's 3 game series last weekend against Illinois in Lincoln drew more fans than the other 18 Big Ten games played that weekend combined).

March 31/April 1: Northwestern (in Evanston, IL)

I’m folding these games into one, because honestly, I don’t want to spend any more time on these than I have to. Game 2 was a perfect example of how much this Husker team tends to ride the roller coaster of emotion. While the Huskers have erupted for some massive innings this year, in Game 2, their fielding fell completely apart. One of my praises for the 2012 Huskers is that for the most part they appear to be so fundamentally sound. In pretty much every other Husker game I’ve watched/listened two this year, the Huskers had either zero or one error. In game 2, the Huskers racked up six. I’m not sure what the deal was, whether it was Nebraska losing focus against a very beatable opponent, Nebraska’s bad juju against Northwestern in pretty much anything, but six errors is jaw dropping and it without a doubt cost the Huskers this game, as none of Northwestern’s eight runs were earned. Jon Keller, despite giving up no earned runs on just three hits took his first loss of the year.

Game 3 was reminiscent of Nebraska’s game 3 against California. The pitching and defense was there, but the Husker batters just couldn’t get untracked all day. A solid outing by Zach Hirsch was wasted as Nebraska managed just one run against a complete game by Northwestern pitcher Zach Morton who improved his record on the season to 1-5.

WP’s: Brandon Magallones (5-0) and Zach Morton (1-5), Northwestern.

LP’s: Jon Keller (3-1) and Zach Hirsch (3-2), Nebraska

Attendance: 308 and 428

April 1: Kansas State (in Manhattan)

So far this year, the only really reliable about this Husker team is that when you think they’ve summited the mountain, they find a way to fall, and when you think they’ve hit rock bottom, they redeem themselves. This time, the Huskers responded to an embarrassing outing at Northwestern by completing a 3-0 season sweep over old Big 12 foe Kansas State in Manhattan. For those keeping track, that’s NU’s first 3-0 sweep of a BCS conference team since 2010.

Tyler King and Tyler Niederklein were stellar in seven innings of service, giving up just two hits and no runs. On the offensive side, Rich Sanguinetti and Kash Kalkowski led the way, each with two hits and two runs batted in to pace the Huskers. Meanwhile, the Wildcats just couldn’t quite get it together. They went through five pitchers, three of whom had a pretty tough time, although KSU did get some nice innings out of Jake Doller and Johnny Fasola. In the end though, KSU just couldn’t get enough people on base, and couldn’t get any runs across, stranding six runners in the course of the game.

Overall, a badly needed win by the Huskers, as their ship was listing after the debacle in Chicago. With 25 games left in the regular season, this is a team that has the ability to put together a pretty impressive final record if they can build some momentum and then ride it.

Nebraska (20-11): 6, Kansas State (14-14): 0

W: Tyler King, NU (1-0)

L: Jared Moore, KSU (2-2)

Attendance: 1249

Up next, the Huskers host the Hawkeyes from Iowa for a three game series at Haymarket Park on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. I view this series as being fairly important, not only because beating Iowa in anything makes me smile, but also because Nebraska is a team in search of momentum right now. Iowa is just 10-14 overall, but as we saw this past week, if the Huskers don’t bring it, they can and will lose. First pitch goes out on Friday at 6:35.