With the 2022 Nebraska Cornhusker baseball season coming to a disappointing close, Aaron and Todd reflect on the season and take a little time to discuss the future. For a team that came off such a successful 2021 season with the promise of continued success, a 23-30 record and sitting on the sideline while eight other Big Ten teams get to play in Omaha, leaves a bad taste in the mouths of anyone associated with Big Red baseball.
Be honest, did you buy into the hype coming into the season, or did your baseball tea leaves tell a different story?
Todd: Yeah, I bought the hype, though I was concerned about starting pitching. I did not see how they were going to replace both Cade Povich and Chance Hroch. I knew they would miss Spencer Schwellenbach and Luke Roskum, but I figured they could adequately replace them. No one could have predicted the extent of the injuries to the pitching staff. I would not have believed that hitting and defense would drop off so much. I figured that they were an easy top two or three team in the Big Ten.
Aaron: I will tell you, when they announced Nebraska was picked number 1 in the conference, it really surprised me. Now, I would have been less surprised with that finish, than a 9th place finish. In my mind, I had them behind Maryland, and probably Michigan, based on reputation and recruiting. I thought they would be battling Iowa for the 3 spot. Like Todd, I thought the pitching would be an issue. Back to back years of replacing almost every meaningful spot, (3-4 starters, set-up guy, closer) combined with no mid-week games last year would have to catch up to us eventually. And I was worried about our outfield defense. We had 3 centerfield caliber players playing all 3 spots last year, and had Roskam at 1B, and Schwellenbach at SS. Those two helped our OF play immensely, because they were the 2 best players at going and getting pop ups that Nebraska has had in maybe a decade. Think of all the drops we had in foul ground this year. Those two guys went and got us probably 20+ more outs last year that our current guys couldn’t.
From your perspective, what is the primary reason this season went south, and what are other factors that you believe contributed to the losing record?
Todd: There are two primary reasons. Horrible hitting. The fact that only one regular player – Garrett Anglim – finished the season hitting .300 or better makes it obvious where the problem is. Not only was hitting poor, this team just could not get a big hit when it was needed. Very little clutch hitting. The other reason is a lack of leadership and knowing how to win or perform during adversity. No one apparently emerged after losing the leaders from last year, and it did not appear the team had the fortitude to fight through difficulty.
Aaron: Offense, any way you look at it, all of it. It improved at putting the ball in play later on in the season, but through the first ½-⅔ of the season, they were putting up historically bad numbers of strikeouts, runners left on base, and batting average with runners in scoring position. I figured offense may be our weakest link coming into the season, but I thought it would be middle of the pack in the conference still, not struggling to stay ahead of the Gophers for last place at the end of the season, and just barely hitting over .250. That and defensive misqueues. I foresaw us not making as many spectacular plays, or getting to as many balls in the outfield, with the speed and instincts we lost, but the amount of errors was just inexcusable. Baseball is a game of failure, lots of it. But the one place you can minimize that a bit is defense, errors can happen, but the ones they were making, and the frequency in which they were occurring was just maddening.
Can you pinpoint what the turning point was this season, or when you thought “Oh boy! This isn’t going where I thought it would.”
Todd: I was a bit concerned when they lost three out of four at Sam Houston State to start the season, but I figured that they would get things straightened out once they had more time on the field. Then losing three of three to TCU raised my concern even more. I thought things got turned around in Arlington when they went 2-2, but that ended up a mirage. It also became very apparent with Injuries to the pitching staff. In spite of that, not enough has been said about the job Jeff Christy has done putting together a staff with duct tape and bailing wire to remain competitive in most of their games. Losing Kyle Perry and Jake Bunz so early really hurt this team. That said, the rest of the starters had very few quality starts. I saw Schanaman pitch that brilliant complete game shutout in Texas and had very high hopes for him. He did not approach that level the rest of the season. The rest of the starting staff just was not of the quality needed to win the series every weekend.
Aaron: 2 spots really. I figured we would split with Sam Houston when we were down there, since they had everyone other than their 2 best players back, if I recall correctly, and our M.O. is to struggle out of the gate down south anyway. I was hoping our bats would be good enough to maybe eek out a series victory, however, the starting pitching combining for 10.1 innings in 4 games, errors galore, and Bunz going down in the one win they did get, (and then Christo, the top recruit in the entire Big Ten conference coming in and not getting a single out on top of the injury) really left an empty feeling on the drive out of Huntsville. The second moment where I had to really accept what this season was going to be like was at Kansas State. 3 errors and another bad defensive play cost Nebraska 5 of the 6 runs. And while the Huskers scored 4 runs, they were all in garbage time at the end of the game. They did absolutely nothing against a pitcher that ended up being below average the rest of his season. It was the worst all around game I’ve seen from a Nebraska baseball team, maybe in a decade.
If you have not already mentioned it, what disappointed you the most as a fan of Cornhusker baseball this season?
Todd: I really wanted to see Long Beach State come into Lincoln to play. I’m a fan of the Dirtbags and would have loved seeing them for a three game series. It was not to be!
Aaron: I second the Long Beach sentiment. Always been a Dirtbags fan when they would make the trip to Omaha for the CWS. Really wanted them to find a way to play that series. I think the thing I was most disappointed in happened in the fall actually. We lost our top offensive recruits for each of the past 2 recruiting cycles, one to be closer to home, and one, Chase Mason, wanted to play QB at a lower level of competition. Now, I never blame or criticize a guy that wants to leave a program or school for whatever reason they choose. I learned a long time ago that the pressure on these athletes both in recruiting and in school while on the team is just beyond what most people imagine. But it was just disappointing losing Mason, as he was looked at as a potential day 1 starter in CF, and as you saw with the defensive play this season, a natural outfielder that could also provide some offense, would have been a huge lift to this team.
Were Big Ten teams better this year? What is the status of baseball in the conference at this time?
Todd: The state of Big Ten baseball is bad right now, both on the field and from the league office. Besides Nebraska, for what other school is baseball important? I’m not referring to the feelings of the coaches. There are some good ones that have raised the level of play for their teams. I’m talking about from the perspective of the athletic department, college, and fan base. What have other schools done to make it important? And, it is obvious the “home office” doesn’t give a crap based on the way they let things happen at the end of the season with rain in the forecast at Purdue. The fact that they did not even have the conference web page updated when the season started is just another example. If what happened Saturday in West Lafayette had occurred in basketball, people would have screamed bloody murder. Instead, hardly a word has been said. “Don’t criticize the Big Ten!” On the field, not playing non-conference and midweek games last year was a real setback for conference teams. If two or three teams get a regional bid this year, I will be surprised.
Aaron: The Big Ten is way down from the past 3-4 years, and has no one to blame but itself. The conference-only schedule just killed any momentum the league had built up. In 2018-2021, teams had 2+ starting pitchers that could throw 92-95 with a big wipeout slider. Now we are back to where we were when Nebraska first came in the conference with Friday night guys hitting 86-88 with decent movement (which makes Nebraska’s offensive futility all the more head scratching). I think the conference is hoping Maryland doesn’t win the tournament, in hopes they can sneak another team in. And with the condensed tournament schedule due to the rain in Omaha, Maryland probably won’t try to overuse the important pieces of their pitching staff in preparation for the NCAA. Throw in the Purdue debacle, and its just the epitome of how much this conference cares about baseball.
You’re Coach Will Bolt, what is at the top of your priority list in terms of righting the ship for 2023?
Todd: Hitting. Hitting. Hitting! I think attention has to be given to starting pitching too, but they have to be better at the plate. Shortstop is a need, as is a strong defensive catcher..
Aaron: Hard to imagine batting being any worse, so I’m hoping the law of averages comes back and we are good/decent. But in looking at the recruiting class so far, pitching and outfield are by far the priority. Hopefully a top end starter is in there, and a guy that can just eat innings. A top end HS catcher and one of the best offensive catchers in JUCO in the country are also coming to help in that department, although the latter may be moving to the outfield, and by all accounts is just a baseball player that can go anywhere.
Efry Cervantes, Colby Gomes, Caleb Feekin, Shay Schanaman, Griffin Everitt, Koty Frank . . . Do any of them come back?
Todd: I’ve thought of this a bit and have changed my mind a few times. I want Gomes back as a dual-purpose player and Koty Frank. I am hoping that the people coming in are better than the others.
Aaron: I’d welcome with open arms Colby Gomes and Koty Frank (I had Cam Chick mentioned here as well, but he announced Thursday afternoon he is moving on from baseball.) Gomes had a good year even with multiple injuries keeping him out of the lineup for a while, and off the mound for the majority of the season. Frank can basically succeed at any spot on the pitching staff. I’d also allow Schanaman back, but in hopes he could be somewhere in the back end of the bullpen again. I don’t have strong feelings on Everitt. He was the hottest hitter in the NCAAs over a week long span, and came up with some clutch hits, but struggled down the stretch, and offers little more than good blocking on defense (subpar framing and arm accuracy/strength).
Kyle Perry and Jake Bunz, both listed as Seniors but neither recognized on Senior Day. Do you want either of them to come back, and will either of them come back?
Todd: I would take both of these guys back. I’ve heard Perry plans to return. That said, I am concerned about a second surgery and what his role may be. I am hopeful Bunz rehabs well and can return as a starter.
Aaron: Being there in person for both Bunz and Kyle Perry’s injuries were hard to stomach. I think I noticed KP had an issue before pretty much anyone in the dugout did, and just felt like a gut punch after all that kid has done to get back to where he is. I was also there when Duensing hurt his arm back in the mid 2000s. So if any LH pitchers slash my tires the night before they pitch so I can’t drive to the stadium, just know that I get it. I would welcome both back. They were probably the two biggest leaders in the pitching staff, Bunz with his intensity, and by all accounts, just how hard he works, and KP is well known as the best teammate on the Huskers. They gave him a spot 2 years ago on the travel roster, when he had zero chance of playing. I know I’ve said that a lot in my articles, but that’s because it’s just something that NEVER happens. So I really hope they come back. I hope they found a Friday night guy in the JUCO ranks, but if not, choosing between one of these two if they return to form isn’t the worst option.
Next year, the roster is still expanded to 40 players due to Covid and up to 32 players can be on scholarship. With fifteen to twenty players expected to join the team, including at least nine JUCO players, do you believe some of the underclassmen who got a lot of playing time will look elsewhere?
Todd: While I haven’t paid real close attention to the resumes of the new guys coming in, I believe that Coach Bolt and staff have a good eye for talent. With nine of these guys coming in from junior college, I have to believe that they will take some of the starting positions. I don’t know who will lose their starting spots, but unless your name is Anderson, Angliim, or Jackson, I think you may be in a real battle for playing time.
Aaron: In the past 3 days, the Huskers have added 2 big offensive JUCO commits, one was the aforementioned C/OF, and also a middle infielder that hit .395 with 30 doubles this year. Add to that the 1B/OF/LHP Trey Frahm that is expected to come in and be a POWERFUL middle of the order guy from the time he sets foot on campus. So the number seems to keep shrinking on the amount of spots open for returning players. We’ve seen 6 exits this week, and I’m sure more are coming. NU has had a couple of our bigger pitching recruits underperform so far in their careers, but they will only be Sophomores next year, so I hope they can make big leaps and become the players we’ve been told to expect as a fan base.
Looking into your crystal ball, are you optimistic for the 2023 baseball season? Why?
Todd: I am always optimistic for the new season! You know, that new beginning thing. I trust in Will Bolt and believe that the team he puts on the field will be better than the one this year. The second year slump jumped up a number of guys this year at the plate, and there were too many first year players in the lineup to compete at a high level this year.
Aaron: Sigh… I’m always Mr. Optimism. That’s why this season pains me so much. I am hoping the ballyhooed hitters coming in next year are going to be similar to the arms that came in for 2021. The pieces just seemed to fit perfectly in 2021, and I’m seeing them line up similarly for the offense in 2023. Do I think that means a championship??? Probably not. But I do think combined with how well Coach Christy’s pitching staff has performed since he’s been on campus (2nd in the B1G in 2021, and 3rd in 2022 despite the incredible amount of losses) that the new offense will keep Nebraska in every series and almost every game.
Without Nebraska in the tournament, who are you picking to win the Big Ten? Are you going to watch?
Todd: I am going to watch, and will get to
Rosenblatt, er TD Ameritrade, ah Charles Schwab Field for a few of them. I’m picking and cheering for Rutgers. I will not cheer for Maryland or Iowa, and may actually boo Purdue.
Aaron: I love how Rutgers built their team since Steve Owens became their head coach at the same time as Will Bolt. He is one of the winningest coaches in Div. 1 history at the smaller school level. I hate that he seemingly knows how to beat Nebraska like a drum, but it’s fun to watch them play other schools. I don’t think Maryland will tax their pitching staff with this condensed schedule, due to rain, so I don’t think they will win it. But mainly all I care about is cheering against Iowa, and the fraud that is Purdue. And I’ll be at the Schwab every game! I’ve only missed 1 B1G Tournament game since 2013, and don’t expect to do so anytime soon!
Well, what do you think? Agree? Disagree? Have any other questions for the all knowing Todd and Aaron? Or just here to comment on about how much you are cheering against Iowa or Purdue? Let’s hear it!