Jaxson Hallmark was shaking during his first time at-bat this season, in Nebraska’s second game at Tempe, Arizona, against Washington State. No surprise there; Hallmark is a freshman.
“I was scared,” he said.
He grounded out to shortstop, on a 2-1 count.
He’s had 24 official at-bats since then and gotten eight hits, including two doubles. He has driven in five runs and stole a base. And he has played three positions.
At Midland (Texas) High, he played shortstop primarily, but in select ball he played multiple positions. As a Husker, he has started five games at third base and one each in right field and center field.
“In practice I play a bunch of different positions, so knowing that I could play any of them, I have to take every practice from every position seriously,” said Hallmark. “I can’t take any days off.
“I can’t take any plays off in practice. I have to go hard every time.”
It’s a matter of mindset, which is among the reasons he’s been able to contribute right away.
“That’s the toughest thing for most young guys to understand, is coming in every day with your lunch pail and getting to work,” Coach Darin Erstad said.
“He pretty much had that when he got here, so he’s a little ahead of the curve.”
The question is whether Hallmark can “handle the speed of the college game defensively,” something the coaches are “still trying to get him comfortable (with) out there,” said Erstad. At bat, however, “he’s just seeing the ball real well and putting together good at-bats.”
That was in evidence last weekend in Nebraska’s first game at Surprise, Arizona, against Oregon State and left-hander Luke Heimlich, the 2017 Pac-12 Pitcher or the Year, someone with a 94-mph fastball and a “plus-curveball,” Hallmark said. “You don’t see anything like that in high school.”
He struck out his first time, after working the count to 3-2, but “learned from it,” said Hallmark. Heimlich “was commanding the fastball and he was trying to sneak fastballs late past you.
“Later at-bats I kind of caught onto that.”
Later as in his second at-bat, when he singled.
A year ago, Mojo Hagge stepped in right away as a freshman. Hallmark has a similar mindset, according to Erstad. “You tell him to do something once and it’s like, ‘OK.’ Some guys have to learn a little bit more how to process information; he’s ahead of the curve when it comes to that, really, pitch-to-pitch (to) making those adjustments,” Erstad said.
To do that “is not very usual for young kids.”
Hallmark had scholarship offers from New Mexico and New Mexico State, “great programs,” he said. “But neither one of them had a coaching staff like Coach Erstad does.”
Erstad sets the standard, of course. “He plays the game with aggression. He’s always ready to go,” Hallmark said. “He wants to win more than anybody I’ve ever met, and I feel like I can relate to that. I strive to be more like him, the way that he wants to win every game.”
Hallmark also pitched in high school, but that’s not something he’s expected to do at Nebraska – yet, anyway. Erstad announced before Wednesday’s practice that junior left-hander Jake McSteen, who was set to be a weekend starter, is trying to decide how to deal with a ligament injury.
The “ligament’s intact,” said Erstad. So “it’s not a slam-dunk case as it has been with some of those other guys. But he has a decision to make, whether to rehab or have surgery.”
Over the weekend, McSteen and his family will decide how to proceed. He could possibly return this season if he decides to rehab. “But again, that’s his decision,” Erstad said.
Among the other guys to whom Erstad referred are Chad Luensmann and Robbie Palkert, both of whom have needed Tommy John surgery.
“Those are our hardest workers that have been injured, which is just crazy,” said Erstad. “It’s a brutal game. You’re at the mercy of it. I mean, all over the country there’s just guys dropping like flies.
“Sometimes they come in bunches, and that’s obviously what happened.”
With McSteen sidelined, the Huskers’ starters for this weekend’s three-game series at Wichita State, in order, will be Luis Alvarado, Nate Fisher and Matt Warren.
Wichita State is 6-0, opening with sweeps of McNeese State and Omaha.
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.