Nebraska has already faced the No. 2 and 3 pitching staffs with respect to ERA coming into the Stillwater regional. With Cal State Fullerton Friday at noon, they’ll see No. 1.
“They’re leading the nation in ERA for a reason. I think from a pitch ability standpoint, this is as good as it gets,” Darin Erstad said of the Titans’ staff.
Oregon State and Indiana hold the second and third national spots respectively, with the Huskers splitting a pair of games with the Beavers and losing just last week to Indiana. The Titans will throw ace Thomas Eshelman, who boasts an 8-3 record with a 1.93 ERA, part of Fullerton’s staff-wide ERA of 2.03 that leads the nation. The Titans also lead the nation in strikeout to walk ratio (5.2/1) and walks per innings.
Erstad said the ability of the Fullerton staff to not only mix pitches but also execute is what sets the Titans’ starting rotation apart.
“Just their ability to execute pitches and set hitters up and be able to work the ball from both sides of the plate with multiple pitches, you just don’t see that very often out of a whole staff,” he said. “From my standpoint, those are fun games because you can try and break down and figure out what they’re doing to you.”
The strategic chess match games are among his favorite, he added.
“It’ll probably be the best staff overall that we’ll see, and I love it,”Erstad said. “It’s a great challenge.”
Offensively, it hasn’t been offense that carried Cal State Fullerton to its 22nd consecutive post-season. The Titans entered the season as a unanimous top-5 team by the major polls, but struggled midway through the season while head coach Rick Vanderhook was suspended due to an athletic department investigation.
The teams bats .260 as a club, but has a major league prospect in preseason All-American Matt Chapman, a .321 hitter with 46 runs batted in. The pitching is truly Fullerton’s strength however, and they displayed it last week with Justin Garza throwing a 12-strikeout no-hitter against Cal State Northridge.
The Huskers will once again be without the services of Friday starter Christian DeLeon, who Erstad said likely won’t play until the end of the tournament, if at all. Jake Placzek is also questionable tomorrow with a jammed wrist. If he can’t go, Blake Headley will play third with Austin Christensen taking over at first.
With DeLeon out, Chance Sinclair gets the start Friday after a 3.1 inning starting effort against Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament. Recently named a third-team Louisville Slugger All-American, Sinclair deviated a bit from his role as a consistent and steady contact pitcher at the end of the season. Sinclair set a career high with 10 strikeouts against Illinois – more than double his previous high – but also gave up five earned runs against the Buckeyes in the tournament in 3.1 innings.
“Chance has a very level head on his shoulders,” Erstad said. “We’ve kicked the ball around, especially when he’s been on the mound, quite a bit this year. He’s got a lot of unearned runs, and he has not let that affect his strike-throwing ability.”
Erstad was quick to point out that Sinclair pitched in the Junior College World Series last season as Neosho County Community College.
“I think he thrives in this situation,” Erstad said. “He’ll be ready to roll.”
First pitch from Stillwater, Okla., is scheduled for noon Friday. While its technically Nebraska’s first regional trip since the 2008 season, Erstad said the team’s approach of playing “playoff baseball” hasn’t changed since the middle of the season.
“It never stops. I think in college baseball, its starts at the very beginning of the season,” he said. “We’ve tried for a couple years to get that mentality to just understand how important every game is and just how much those losses to lower RPI teams can hurt you, and we stumbled a few times through the years with that.”
Erstad and Pritchard both point to the Arkansas series as a turning point in the season that led up to this point, where the playoff mentality began. Since then, Erstad said, Nebraska hasn’t taken a day off.
“We’re not a team who can just roll the balls out there and out-talent you,” he said. “We have talent, but our little edge we have is the boys just don’t quit. They fight.”