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Erstad Emphasizes Fundamentals, Breathing with Young Players

February 17, 2017

Jesse Wilkening’s first at-bat at Nebraska was brief. “I looked at three pitches down the middle,” the sophomore catcher said. “It was like surreal I was there almost.”

Most, if not all, freshmen go through something similar to what he experienced, which is why breathing is among the fundamentals Coach Darin Erstad and his staff emphasize.

“I heard that was kind of important to breathe,” Erstad said before practice on Wednesday as the Huskers prepared for their season-opening series against UC Riverside in Tempe, Arizona.

“You can talk about it all you want. To actually know how to do it . . .”

How to breathe? “It happens every year,” said Erstad.

He used pitchers as an example. “You go to the mound the first couple of weekends, a freshman’s out there, you tell them to breathe,” he said, acting as if he were gasping for air. “They take a breath and their shoulders move. ‘OK, you can stop hyperventilating and let’s take a real breath.’

“So just helping them understand how you do that, how you get deep into your belly, understanding how that’s going to be your best friend when stuff hits the fan because it’s going to hit the fan. You’re going to get punched in the face. You’re going to face adversity. You’re going to be uncomfortable.”

The key is “how comfortable do you get being uncomfortable,” Erstad said.

And that’s the reason for learning how to breathe.

Wilkening is “100 percent more comfortable” than he was a year ago.

He can empathize with the Huskers’ young players, including freshman pitcher Paul Tillotson, who’s slated to start the second game of a double-header on Friday. Sophomore Matt Waldron is set to start the first game, scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. (CT).

Waldron has proven himself. He led the Huskers in victories last season, going 7-2 with a 2.87 earned-run-average, and only 15 walks in 75.1 innings. But Erstad might have to calm down Tillotson, a 6-foot-1, 213-pound right-hander from Monument, Colorado.

Tillotson is getting the start, not only because pitchers who figure in the plans this season are coming off injuries but also because in the fall he “handled the pace of college practice pretty well,” Erstad said. “Most importantly, the stuff held. It wasn’t like it was one inning and it fell off in the fourth and fifth innings of his outings. The stuff was still there. That’s a sign of good physical strength.”

Freshman Connor Curry, a 6-3, 218-pound left-hander, “will get thrown into the fire this weekend as well,” said Erstad, though not as a starter – and assuming predicted rain doesn’t intercede.

Senior Ben Miller is scheduled to start the third game, “kind of a staff game,” Erstad said.

With the possibility of four games this weekend and four more next weekend in Surprise, Arizona, to begin the season, pitching will be handled differently than during Big Ten play, when the Huskers play three-game weekend series.

“We’re not going to go and throw a guy 100 pitches,” said Erstad. “Everybody’s not built up exactly how they’re going to be in a few weeks . . . guys like Jake McSteen, Nate Fisher, Luis Alvarado, that have come off an injury or haven’t pitched at all, they’re one-time-a-weekend guys.

“So they’re going to be kind of in that 40-to-50 pitch range.”

McSteen was shut down in the fall because of shoulder soreness. Fisher missed all of last season, following Tommy John surgery. And Alvarado, a junior, hasn’t pitched since high school.

Derek Burkamper, who has dealt with “shoulder tightness,” will be limited even more. “His pitch count isn’t built up enough to start, so maybe an inning or two at the most,” Erstad said.

Waldron, Burkamper and Jake Meyers were the weekend starters in Big Ten play a year ago.

Young players aren’t likely to be the only ones benefiting from the breathing practice, but for sure they will be. After that first at-bat a year ago, Wilkening walked back to the dugout with a “darn,” he said. “It was an experience I’ll never forget, ever.

“Coach still gives me crap about it here and there.”

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