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Nebraska Baseball Preview: Pitchers

525,600 New Pitchers! Ok, That Might be a Slight Exaggeration.

As with the position groups (check out the infield and outfield previews!), the Nebraska Cornhusker pitching staff has experienced quite a bit of turnover heading into the 2023 baseball season, welcoming twelve new hurlers to the staff. The coaching staff brought in a nice mix of experience and youngsters, and while experience most often trumps youth, one has to believe that some of the freshmen will see time on the mound. Despite an incredible number of injuries to the pitching staff last season, Coach Jeff Christy was able to develop a mental toughness among those available to give the team a chance to win in most of their games.

At times, the pitching was outstanding, but no one dominant enough to take the ball and put the team on their back through the season. The basic question this year is will the new additions to the staff, and the development of returners, move the dial to a higher level of quality pitching that can take over a game?

Pitching Imports and Exports

Gone: Braxton Bragg, Koty Frank, Colby Gomes, Quinn Mason, Caleb Feekin, Ethan Bradford, Dawson McCarville

New Faces: Caleb Clark (Fr), Matt Dreher (Jr), Brett Sears (Jr), Brandon Lundquist (Fr), JC Gutierrez (Fr), Jalen Worthley (Fr), Austin Berggren (Fr), Sam Novotny (Fr), Will Rizzo (Fr), Michael Garza (Gr), Trey Frahm (Jr), Jace Kaminska (Jr)

Returners: Shay Schanaman (Gr), Kyle Perry (5Sr), Drew Christo (So), Jake Bunz (5Sr), Will Walsh (So), C.J. Hood (So), Jackson Brockett (So), Chandler Benson (So), Emmett Olson (Jr), Corbin Hawkins (So), Mason Ornelas (Sr)

Start Me Up

When one looks at what was lost and compares it to what is returning coupled with the new additions, it is easy to have a great deal of optimism. But, like we all know, games are not won on paper. The players have to step out on the bump and do it. The individual that will be missed is Koty Frank, who served the team well last year as both a starter and from the bullpen. That loss should be easily offset by the twelve new arms, a couple of healthy veterans, and the development of some talented, familiar faces.

It is not unusual to start a season with a level of uncertainty as to where individuals are going to find themselves and how they are going to be used. It is not unheard of for a freshman to find himself on the mound starting in a weekend series, but that is generally not the case early on. There are some real solid newcomers, but coming off the fall workouts, it appears there are five or six experienced individuals being considered for starting spots.

It would be a good bet that one of the weekend starters, and perhaps The Guy on Friday, will be Emmett Olson. The junior left hander found his groove about midway through the 2022 season, highlighted by a complete game win over Iowa. Finishing with a 3-3 record, a 2.86 ERA, and a save, he was a Second-Team All-Big Ten selection. In addition, he gained valuable experience during the summer pitching for USA Baseball. The fact that he did not pitch during the scrimmage after Fan Day would make one think he is scheduled to open the season this Friday against San Diego.

Another returning Cornhusker who may get a start on the weekend is sophomore Drew Christo from Elkhorn. The highly recruited righty saw action last year both as a starter and out of the bullpen, but struggled mightily. Coach Bolt has remarked leading up to the new season that he has really come on, adding a breaking pitch to his arsenal. He is a big framed young man that looks the part, with velocity that will be more dangerous with a breaking pitch that will keep hitters from sitting on the fastball. You can bet that he is anxious to put last year behind him.

Newcomers are also battling for starting spots. Three upperclassmen with weekend starting experience join the staff, with a couple of them most likely starting when the season opens in San Diego. Jace Kaminska is a junior who pitched at Wichita State last year. D1 Baseball’s Patrick Ebert stated on an episode of the Five Heart podcast on Corn Nation that Kaminska is a “big pickup” for the Cornhuskers and could be a “big, big addition.” He was tabbed a First-Team Freshman All-American in 2021 by D1 Baseball and Perfect Game. His numbers fell off a bit in his sophomore season, thought he notched 86 strikeouts in 78.2 innings. He has a mid-90’s fastball and a nasty change up.

Graduate student Michael Garza, another right hander, played the past four seasons at Incarnate Word, making 50 appearances and 27 starts. The tall Texan was the Friday night starter for the Cardinals, ending the season with a 5-5 record and 81 strikeouts, earning Third-Team All-Southland Conference recognition. Because he answered the bell every Friday night last year, he should not be intimidated by pressure.

Brett Sears, is a junior that pitched at Western Illinois and then Iowa Central CC before transferring to Nebraska. The Harlan, Iowa native comes from the right side and threw six complete games in 14 starts in 2022 for the Tritons. He’s a strikeout pitcher with 114 in 85.1 innings and seven games with at least eight. He can really bring it and should be able to keep hitters off balance.

There is no question that some high-powered freshmen have come to Lincoln and will be given an opportunity to earn a starting spot. The two most likely are Caleb Clark, a lefty from Orillia, Ontario and JC Gutierrez, another lefty, from La Joya, Texas. Clark has impressed since arriving on campus and was one of the top five Canadian prospects according to Perfect Game. He also pitched two seasons for the Canadian Junior National Team. If a freshman is going to break into the weekend starting rotation, it would be most likely Clark.

Gutierrez led the state of Texas in strikeouts in 2022 with 153 in his senior season. Over his four years at La Joya High School, he had 348 strikeouts, a school record. At 5-11 he will remind some older Cornhusker fans of Shane Komine, a recent inductee into the Nebraska Hall of Fame who will have his number retired this upcoming season. However, he most likely is going to need another solid year in the weight room building his body up to handle the demands of big-time college baseball.

The Pen is Mightier

Upon reflection, the bullpen may well have been the strength of the 2022 Nebraska baseball team, and most likely it will be again this year. Braxton Bragg and Koty Frank both gave some quality innings last year and moved on, but like the starting staff, new additions should more than make up for their absence. What is particularly promising is three former starters will be in the bullpen this season.

Shay Schanaman decided to return for one final season as a graduate student and will be given a shot to be the closer. The right hander from Grand Island pitched the best game of any Cornhusker last year in a complete game three-hit performance against Northwestern State. He has answered the bell throughout his career and has both the mindset and the “stuff” to fill the closer role.

Kyle Perry and Jake Bunz, both fifth-year senior lefties will also be in the bullpen as both are also coming off significant injuries from last season. Their roles in large part will depend on where they are at in their recovery and how well they recapture command of their pitches. Like Schanaman, these two Omaha area pitchers have pitched in big games and have come through on the positive side of the scoresheet. The fact that Schanaman, Perry, and Bunz are all working as relief pitchers is a strong indication that there is a definite upgrade in the starting talent.

Other veterans who will most likely start the season in a non-starting role include transfers Will Rizzo, a freshman from Texas A&M, and Matt Dreher, a junior from Northeast CC. Mason Ornelas, who transferred from Texas A&M a year ago is also back. Rizzo has impressed this spring throwing very hard and Ornelas had a calming presence last year when he was brought in to put out fires early in a game. Trey Frahm, a junior transfer from the College of Southern Nevada is a player that will look for innings. Chandler Benson, a crafty lefty from Frisco, Texas looks to play a more prominent role and may find himself starting midweek games. Jackson Brockett, Will Walsh, C.J. Hood, and Corbin Hawkins are other relief pitchers that are back for another year, though Hood is going to be limited at least early in the season.

Four other freshmen pitchers are also on the team and will challenge for opportunities, three of them from Nebraska. Brandon Lundquist is a right hander from Millard North and the newest in a long line of Millard players to make their way to Lincoln. Jalen Worthley had an outstanding senior season at Lincoln East, notching an 8-0 record with a 0.84 ERA and 68 strikeouts in 44 innings. Sam Novotny from Millard West helped his team to a state championship with an 11-2 record and 94 strikeouts. And from Olathe East outside Kansas City comes Austin Berggren, a young man that touches 90, and pairs that with an already college level breaking ball.

Season Outlook

Even though there are thirteen freshmen and sophomores on the roster, the pitching staff got older this year with transfers and a few players opting to play their extra year. This should bode well for the start of the season when experience will be very important until the the offense finds its groove. Look for a more competitive approach from the starters at the outset and keep your eye on some very talented youngsters navigating their way through the depth chart to get their chance.

Tune in Friday, February 17th at 8pm Central as our beloved Huskers open the season at San Diego.

You can watch on the WCC Network or listen on the Husker Radio Network.