Never mind that the Nebraska baseball team is 6-13 going into its Big Ten-opening series at Illinois. The Huskers haven’t lost confidence, at least according to coach Darin Erstad.
“They’re a very resilient group of guys, and they’re pretty mentally tough,” he said Thursday.
If he had thought they lacked the mental toughness of a veteran team, he would have scheduled differently in non-conference play. “This team’s at a point (where) they need to be challenged, and we knew that going in,” said Erstad. “I don’t know how many games, a lot, that we were either ahead or tied going into the sixth inning or seventh inning of these games and we just haven’t been able to push through and find a way to finish those games off. But this is where that team’s at.”
Wednesday’s 10-4 loss at No. 8-ranked Cal State Fullerton was a painful example. Nebraska led 4-2 going into the bottom of the sixth inning, when Cal State Fullerton scored eight runs.
“They’re at that point where they need to learn how to finish these games off. There’s only one way to do that. That’s doing it in live action,” Erstad said of the Huskers.
“And we haven’t got to that point as a team yet.”
They probably need to get there in short order, with the start of Big Ten play. And though the conference isn’t considered as strong as some of the teams Nebraska has already played, there’s still no margin for error, no time to exhale. “That’s another great challenge for our guys,” said Erstad.
“That’s part of the way we want to teach these guys. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing. You don’t get up for the level of your competition. You play your game, regardless of how intense the stakes are or how bad of a game it is. You play your game of baseball.”
The game Illinois plays is much the same as what Erstad would like his team to play.
The Illini “hit and run, and they steal,” he said. “It’s pretty much jailbreak on the bases. I mean, it’s amazing. They take advantage of people not being able to play catch. That’s what it boils down to. You look at what they’ve done and they put a lot of pressure on college teams.”
That approach has paid off so far. Illinois is 13-4, the second-best record in the Big Ten, behind Indiana’s 15-3. The coaches picked the Hoosiers as conference favorites – Nebraska No. 2.
Instead, the Huskers are second from the bottom, ahead of only Penn State.
Illinois has won six in a row, sweeping series at Baylor and Southern Illinois, and 12 of its last 13, with all of its games away from Champaign.
Junior right-hander Christian DeLeon will start Friday’s game, which is scheduled to start at 4:05 p.m. The series continues with games on Saturday and Sunday, though weather could change that. (UPDATE 3/22: Sunday’s game has been moved to Saturday. It will Nebraska’s third double header this season.)
Right-handers Ryan Hander and Brandon Pierce are slated to start those games.
That was Nebraska’s pitching rotation for the previous weekend series at UC Irvine.
“Like I told our guys, we had a 19-game tryout to see who could handle playing against the big boys,” Erstad said. “We saw a lot of good, and we saw a lot of bad, so we have some pieces that showed they can handle the fire, and we have some ones that have shown they’re not quite ready for that yet.”
DeLeon “has been pretty consistent,” Erstad said.
The junior college transfer is 1-2 with a 1.91 earned-run average. He’s pitched eight innings in two of his five starts, something Husker pitchers accomplished only once last season.
That it’s the Big Ten opener “doesn’t really make anything big in my head,” said DeLeon. “I’m just going to get on the mound and focus on what I’ve been focusing on and just stick to the game plan. Just because it’s the first game of conference . . . it shouldn’t mean anything bigger than it really is.”
DeLeon wouldn’t say the Huskers have lost confidence during the rugged non-conference schedule. But he wasn’t as definitive as Erstad about that.
“I don’t know if we have all the confidence in the world. I don’t know if we have the most confidence that a D-I team would have,” DeLeon said. “I know these guys are fighters, and it doesn’t matter if we lose 10-1 or 10-9, you know, these boys are going to have self-confidence in themselves.”
From the first pitch of the season the Huskers’ effort and attitude have “just been absolutely off the charts,” said Erstad. “So it’ll be on me to keep their focus, to make sure they’re doing what we need to do to win baseball games. I just do not see them coming out flat.”