Darin Erstad was being complimentary in his own way. Chad Luensmann was behaving like a “caged animal,” Erstad said prior to the Nebraska baseball team’s first practice in late January.
Eleven days later, he described Luensmann as a “rabid dog,” again being complimentary, and descriptive. The Huskers were just over a week away from opening the season with a four-game, weekend series at UC-Riverside. And Luensmann was eager to pitch.
The junior right-hander sat out last season following Tommy John surgery. He pitched out of the bullpen his first two seasons, earning recognition as Big Ten Freshman of the Year and Freshman All-America honors in 2016, when he had 13 saves in 14 appearances with a 1.18 ERA as the closer. His sophomore season, he was 3-4 with eight saves and a 3.74 ERA in 27 appearances.
He was set to be a starter last season, and that’s still the plan. Beyond that, his goal is to be the Friday-night starter. “I want to set the tone for our team and get out there because I’ve been chomping at the bit for, it’ll be 18 months when it comes opening weekend,” Luensmann said, “and just getting out there to set the tone for our team would be something that I want to do.”
He was a starter in high school in Altoona, Pennsylvania, of course. So he had to adjust to a bullpen mentality and accept that role when he got to Nebraska.
The “biggest thing” about starting is “you’ll know when you’re going in,” said Luensmann. “But even when you go down to the bullpen, you just have to mentally prepare yourself, you know: ‘I might be going in this inning.’ And when you don’t, you’ve got to prepare for the next inning . . . mentally, like that. And then physically, the routine throughout the week’s going to be a little different.”
Junior right-hander Robbie Palkert and sophomore left-hander Connor Curry also are coming off Tommy John surgeries. Palkert had a win and a save in two relief appearances the first weekend last season before the arm injury, while Curry pitched in four games as a true freshman before being sidelined and granted a medical hardship. Then he had the surgery and missed last season.
Like Luensmann, Palkert and Curry figure in the plan. At what point is the question.
“I think it’s going to be a fluid, you know, situation,” said Erstad. “All of our guys coming from injury are all on their way back. When they’re going to exactly be back I don’t know that. When they’re back, what are their pitch counts going to be? I don’t know that.
“We’ll sit down with the training staff after everybody throws live (this) weekend and kind of determine who is at what point of pitch counts and who’s available.”
As for Luensmann, he’s clearly ready for his first opportunity. “If you ask him, he’s going to go 120 pitches,” Erstad said, “go a complete game whenever he pitches.”
Though that might be Luensmann’s mentality, he’s realistic.
“I’m ready to get out there. They know that,” he said. “I think Coach Erstad said something (like) I want to throw 150 pitches the first weekend; I know that won’t happen.
“But I’m eager to get out there and do whatever I can.”
During the news conference 10 days before the opening series, Erstad talked about having a team with “fighters,” ticked off about last season, not even making the Big Ten Tournament in Omaha.
“I saw one pitcher that missed last year,” he said. “Usually, when they come back for their first live outing, we’ll clap for them or (say) ‘Welcome back.’ When I saw foam out of the side of his mouth, it kind of scared me, so I kind of stayed back and didn’t say anything.”
Again, he was speaking figuratively
The pitcher to whom he referred was Luensmann.
“It was just great to get back out there and get to compete again,” Luensmann said.
Mike is in his 40th year covering Husker athletics, after seven years of community-college teaching. He has written and edited a dozen books, all on Nebraska football except one, a brief history of Husker basketball. He previously wrote for the Lincoln Journal and Star and Huskers Illustrated. He enjoys music, from the Grateful Dead and Jack Johnson to Van Morrison, Bob Wills, Glenn Miller and pretty much anyone else.