The Road to Omaha starts today, so since we have baseball on the mind, your CN baseball writers Todd and Aaron take a look back at what we saw in 2023 and what we hope to see in 2024. Think you know a lot too? Answer along in the comments!
Let’s get to the questions!
1. What was the highlight of the season for you?
Todd: For me the highlight of the season was the home series against Penn State. Granted, the Nittany Lions were not a good baseball team. However, our boys were firing on all cylinders that weekend. The weather was beautiful and the fans turned out. There was also a sense that maybe this team had turned the corner and could win the tournament, thus qualifying for a regional.
Aaron: Ooo! Getting a tough question off the top! I have a top 3, that is hard for me to separate, but I’ll try. You have to throw in “The Will Walsh Game”. It was the best singular performance with the biggest weight attached to it, of keeping the season alive in the Big Ten Tournament. After that, it has to be the Emmet Olson pitching duel against Connor O’Halloran in game 1 of the Michigan series. While I love watching the Huskers win 15-3 as much as anyone, seeing that duel between the 2 best lefties in the B1G was spectacular. I think my top choice combines great pitching, a comeback, and beating a top team. The Vandy win has to be the biggest win of the season. When Anglim took an 0-2 pitch and hit it out of the park, I think I woke my entire house up from their naps.
2. What is something that happened this season that you didn’t expect?
Todd: I did not expect Nebraska to go 1-5 against Omaha and Creighton. I expected the opposite. I guess to extrapolate it out, I did not expect the team to have a losing record in midweek games. That is all baffling to me. Back to Omaha and Creighton, you cannot get your lunch handed to you by in-state rivals. People can say all they want about “they aren’t our rivals,” but they are! They are rivals for bragging rights and that should matter. It also matters because you add four more wins to Nebraska’s total and that looks better in the eyes of the selection committee, though this year that would not have been enough because the RPI still would have been too low. Nebraska should win 90% of their games against those two teams. Always!
Aaron: The struggle against the Summit League and Creighton were hard to stomach, but nothing compares to that opening series against San Diego. Still the strangest series of baseball I’ve ever watched. From their coach being the oddest coach just imposing his will on the umpires, to Kevin Sim being the hottest hitter in the country. The Huskers had the lead late in 3 of the 4 games and turned it over to what we thought would be the strength of the team all season with the arms coming back, the bullpen. I expected their offense to score runs, but I didn’t foresee Nebraska being held to 6 runs over the first 2 games, against sub-par pitching. They just kept rolling out freshman that made our juniors and seniors look like fools. Do you know how many wins their 3 pitchers that won against NU finished with on the season? 4. As in only 1 won a game after our series.
3. How would you compare this season’s team to last year’s? Was this year a step forward, backward, or did the team hold level?
Todd: I am going to stick with something I said on the Monday Night Therapy podcast that it was a better season than last year and a step forward, if for no other reason than a ten win improvement on their record. And, the team finished where the pundits predicted it would in the pre-season. Most important, the team beat a number of good teams. However, those midweek losses just keep me from feeling real good about this season.
Aaron: Definitely a step in the right direction after last year. Bolt tried to remake a roster the old way before last year, bringing in tons of new freshman, and it set the program back a bit. It’s harder to recover from something like that at a “northern” school. But Bolt didn’t double down and say “thats how we do things” or something to that effect, he learned right away and went after more experience in the transfer portal to try and get the older roster like he had on his championship team. Guys like Fischer, Columbus, and Burnham supplemented the core of Matthews, Anderson, Swansen, and Caron on offense and even more so on defense. It was just a shame that Kaminska was the only new pitcher to really make any impact.
4. What was a positive surprise for you this season?
Todd: It may sound strange, but I was surprised how well Brice Matthews played. Based on last year, I hoped he would show improvement, but I have to admit that I did not see him putting up the offensive numbers that he did this season. He was not perfect defensively, and that hurt in a couple of games, but he was very good. If you would have told me that he would be potentially a top round draft pick going into this season, I would not have believed you.
Aaron: I think one of the surprises of the conference had to be Gabe Swansen. 18 home runs, 1.064 OPS were numbers no one saw coming. He really should have been on the first team All Big Ten. Especially since it he did all that damage in about 8-10 fewer games than all the other outfielders. He didn’t get a large amount of playing time until Anglim suffered that hamstring issue.
5. What was a negative surprise for you this season?
Todd: I expected a lot better from the pitching staff. There was a brief period of time in the first half of the season where I was confident in the top two weekend starters, but then both of them struggled. There was never a point where I was comfortable with the bullpen. I expected Schanaman, Perry, and Bunz to be dominant in their roles. That never really happened on a consistent basis. I had expected to see one of the freshmen emerge into a strong starter. That didn’t happen. As negative as I am right now it is hard to believe that the team won 33 games, so there were periods of solid pitching. I just expected it to be better, much better.
Aaron: Similar to Todd, that we couldn’t get a 3rd starter figured out for so long, and never could get a 4th and 5th guy that could give us successful starts on the midweek, while being go-to guys in the bullpen on the weekend. Going into the season, it seemed like that intermediate part of the pitching staff would be a big strength. Really expected some combo of Jackson Brockett, Kyle Perry, Michael Garza, or one or two of the freshmen lefties (Clark, Gutierrez, Worthley) to excel in that spot of the rotation. It seemed like Garza took hold of that spot for a couple weeks, but then he began to give up runs at a high rate and never recovered.
6. Max, Brice, Emmett, and Jace: Which of them will be back next year?
Todd: Max and Brice are gone, unless Brice’s injury is more severe than it appears and it scares teams off. With their draft projections it would make no sense for them to come back to try and raise their stock. I don’t know what to say about Emmett and Jace, in large part because I don’t know where this whole pitching thing stands with this team. Is our coaching staff developing pitchers, and thus do they see value in putting in another year to raise their draft profiles? Does Emmett look at some other former Nebraska pitchers that left last year and seemingly landed in better spots. I mean you have Braxton Bragg down at Dallas Baptist with an 8-2 record and fifteen starts from a guy that was used for limited innings out of the bullpen at Nebraska. With Jace, I believe that if he is drafted, he will go. He’s older and I would think ready to move on if the opportunity presents itself.
Aaron: I feel like this group won’t transfer out. If they leave it will because of the draft. Max will be gone. I thought Brice might slip a bit with the slide due to his back issues at the end of the season, but most publications have him going even higher than before, probably due to the 20/20 club recognition. I feel like Olson was on target to be drafted high, until his mid season slide. I know scouts don’t put a lot of weight on record, but his stuff wasn’t as solid for that month, so any scout that watched him in that time frame would probably have dropped him. Kaminska needs to drive his strikeout numbers up, if he wants to be a drafted pitcher, in my opinion. Too many games with 6 innings pitched, but only 3 or 4 Ks.
7. Of the returning players, who is the last player you would want to see in the transfer portal?
Todd: The obvious player is Dylan Carey. No way do I want to see him leave, and I would have Core Jackson flashbacks for months if it did. I am going to make a wish and hope I don’t have to worry about him. So that being the case, I do not want to see Jalen Worthley in the portal. Hometown kid that I think has some real good stuff. He needs to be a Cornhusker.
Aaron: My biggest nightmare, and I have nothing to back this up other than sheer anxiety, is that Gabe Swansen uses his out of nowhere explosive season to make NIL bank at a more traditional baseball power. I don’t actually think it will happen. I’m pretty much lock step with Todd on this one, in that I want us to retain the 3 freshman lefties we have, Caleb Clark, JC Gutierrez, and Jalen Worthley. I find it hard to choose between them, but would probably go with Clark based on the him having a couple really good outings before having a bit of adversity happen that he didn’t recover from. He did strike out a presumed top 10 pick against Ole Miss, before collapsing after the errors.
8. If you were Coach Bolt, what would be your top priority in the off-season?
Todd: This is probably too vague and maybe I am copping out, but Coach Bolt has to figure out what is going on with pitching. I have a number of questions, but that list would require at least a Part II for this article. The bottom line is that it is a problem and it has to improve. If it is coaching, recruiting, talent, talent appraisal, whatever. Until this gets better, I don’t think the team is going to reach the level everyone wants it to. With what the university has invested into the sport and with the best baseball fanbase in the conference by far, Nebraska should be in a regional at least two out of every three seasons.
Aaron: Pitching. Replacing a couple stud infielders is 2nd, but still way off in the distance behind developing the young pitchers, retaining at least one of the 2 aces, and doing a much better job of figuring out who to bring in via the JUCO or transfer portal ranks. Trey Frahm should be set as closer next year, as long as his rehab goes well, and 1 or 2 starting spots should hopefully be locked up with Walsh and Kaminska. But a veteran presence in the bullpen is needed with Schanaman, Garza and Perry graduating, Hawkins stepping away from baseball, as well as Bunz and CJ Hood entering the portal.
9. What is your opinion of Coach Will Bolt, the job he has done in his time at Nebraska, and his coaching staff?
Todd: I have a very positive opinion of Coach Bolt. This program is better than it was at the end of Coach Anderson’s tenure, and throughout Coach Erstad’s regime. I like the way the team plays the game and believe that every time they take the field, they have a chance to win. I’ve mentioned pitching as a concern. The other one I have is the mental toughness or competitiveness of the team. Ultimately the buck stops with him on those accounts, as well as everything else relative to Nebraska baseball. For those thinking Coach Bolt needs to go, I’ve got no time for that. They don’t know the game with those kinds of comments. Bolt is capable of making tough decisions and he is determined to do what is necessary to improve this team. I am confident he will get it done.
Aaron: I think the weakest link in his staff is easy to point out. Pitching outside of 2021 and the last month of 2022 has been less than stellar. They did finish 3rd in the B1G in team ERA this year, which is solid, but that was mainly due to 4 guys: Olson, Kaminska, Hawkins and Schanaman. Not a lot was behind them, and 2 of the 4 are already gone for next year, and the other 2 could be drafted. Combine that with the success of numerous pitchers that left the program and improved, while only a few transferred in and excelled compared to their previous stops, and that points to an issue with the pitching coach. Now I don’t know how much influence Rob Childress has on the staff, but it seems like sliding one of the best pitching coaches of the past 20 years over one office would drastically improve the team.
10. What are you looking forward to the most next season? Are there any benchmarks you believe the team must meet?
Todd: It used to be a lot easier to kind of forecast next year before the portal came into play. It will come down to pitching. There are some good arms coming back and they. need to bring some more in. It sounds like they have recruited position players that will fill the holes left by those that are leaving, though you aren’t going to replace Matthews and Anderson. However, there are a number of good players that are coming back and with this season under their belt I would expect that they are going to raise the level of their game. I look for the team to challenge for the top of the conference and if they schedule well and play teams that will help their RPI they will be in a regional.
Aaron: The two biggest offensive guns we’ve had in years are more than likely gone, along with Fischer and Burnham. While you won’t replace the production of Matthews and Anderson directly, I don’t think it’s much for an offense to overcome and still be productive. It’s going to be all about pitching and how well we can work the transfer portal. They already have some big time arms coming in as freshman. Ryan Harrahill from Elkhorn North is the stud of the class, expect to see his name somewhere in the MLB draft. Tucker Timmerman of Beatrice is maybe the best all around athlete in the state and comes in with a college ready slider. 6’8” Carson Jasa has one of the best fastballs in Colorado, hitting 95 mph on occasion, but probably needs a bit of development before being ready for big time action. So one or two proven college arms could really take this team back to where it need to be, in the NCAA tournament.