Good pitching beats good hitting. And vice versa.
You’ve heard that, no doubt, and smiled.
Going into the pandemic-impacted 2021 baseball season, Nebraska Coach Will Bolt will take the first option rather than the vice versa—or the standoff.
“I think the teams that have the most pitching depth are going to be the ones that survive the four-game weekend,” Bolt said during a Zoom news conference on Friday.
Though the Big Ten has yet to set baseball schedules, the expectation is that conference-only games will be played with four-game weekend series, beginning March 5.
And that will put a premium on pitching.
“It’s a lot of innings compressed in a short amount of time,” said Bolt. “How many guys do you have that can turn the lineup over, not just go get you possibly one inning, four batters.
“You don’t necessarily need a fourth starter if that’s the case. You could mix and match and go, ‘This guy’s going to go the first three innings,’ and then you’ve got another guy that can go the next two and another guy that can go the next two, and then you’re handing it off to the end of your bullpen.”
Nebraska might have enough pitchers who can turn over the lineup, and with an additional couple of weeks before the season begins, more can be “stretched out” before the opening series.
The list includes junior Cade Povich, who was 1-2 with a 5.06 earned-run average in four starts last season; grad transfer Chance Hroch; junior college transfers Koty Frank and Jake Bunz; and sophomores Braxton Bragg, Quinn Mason and Shay Schanaman, who pitched in six games, all in relief.
Bragg and Mason each had one start, in a combined seven appearances.
Though a reliever, Schanaman “is a guy that’s definitely going to be able to turn the lineup over at least once or twice for us,” Bolt said. “Whatever that role is kind of remains to be seen.”
There are likely more than those seven, “probably eight or nine guys (total) . . . that we feel like have a shot to be more than just a short-stint type of guy,” said Bolt. “It’s just going to see how these next five weeks go really to see how they handle, maybe, more of a heavier load.”
Povich and Bunz are left-handers, the other five right-handers.
Junior Spencer Schwellenbach, recently named a preseason second-team All-American by D1 Baseball, also will see time on the mound, though not as a starter—at least not initially.
Schwellenbach started all 15 games in the shortened 2020 season at shortstop and batted .295. As a freshman, he started 44 games, all in the infield, including 31 at shortstop. He batted .275 with five home runs and 22 runs-batted-in.
He hasn’t pitched since high school in Saginaw, Michigan. His career pitching numbers at Heritage High were remarkable: 233 strikeouts and only 27 walks in 154 innings, with an 18-6 record and 0.73 ERA. His career batting average there was .416.
An elbow injury kept him from pitching as a freshman at Nebraska, after which he had surgery on the elbow. “I’ve always wanted to pitch,” said Schwellenbach. “But it hasn’t really gotten to the point where my arm felt good enough to play shortstop and pitch. This summer, I talked to Coach Bolt and he brought up the question about pitching . . . and I felt really good, my arm.”
Schwellenbach is still “going to get all of his (practice) reps at shortstop,” Bolt said. “He’s going to take the same amount of swings he would normally take. He’s not going to miss any offensive training. He’s not going to miss any defensive training.
“He’s not going to miss any bullpens, any live outings. He’s going to do all of it.”
Doing both “takes a special person to be able to handle it. He’s got a lot on his plate. He’s going to be the captain of the defense. He’s in the middle of the field. He’s going to be in the middle of the lineup. And he’s going to be tasked with saving some ballgames for us,” said Bolt.
Not everyone can handle all of that, but “I think Spencer’s certainly up to the task,” Bolt said.
The first time he took the mound in the fall, after throwing “only a few bullpens,” Schwellenbach threw three pitches in the mid-90s for strikes, according to Bolt.
“On a scale of 20-to-80 across the diamond at shortstop, he’s got a ‘75’ arm, in my opinion,” said Bolt. “It’s big-league level, and that translates to the mound. Some guys it doesn’t.
“It just looks effortless for him on the mound.”
How it looks on the mound, and not just with Schwellenbach, could determine how the Huskers fare in the conference’s expected four-game weekend series.
“I think pitching is king, as always,” Bolt said. “I mean, if you’ve got it, it’s an asset for you. And you’re going to have a shot . . .”
After all, good pitching beats good hitting, and . . . well, leave it at that.
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.