Play ball. Well, not exactly, but it will do for now.
The Nebraska baseball team began fall practice on Tuesday with a veteran roster listing 39 players, or more accurately, perhaps, candidates. The active roster can include 35 in the spring.
Seventh-year head coach Darin Erstad, the 2017 Big Ten Coach of the Year, was eager to get started. “One, I get to get back on the field; that’s pretty fun,” he said. “Two, it’s new voices. It’s a new identity. Every year is just a little bit different. Yeah, you do the same fundamentals, but I don’t know what this group is going to be like. This is their team. We’re going to help them through this a little bit, but this group has an opportunity to do something. What that is, I don’t know.”
Last year’s team won the Big Ten regular-season title, with a 35-22-1 overall record and 16-7-1 in conference play. The Huskers lost their final four games, however, going 1-2 in the Big Ten tournament and 0-2 in the NCAA regional at Corvallis, Oregon.
Only three-of-nine position-players with 42 or more starts are gone: centerfielder Jake Meyers, first baseman Ben Miller and second baseman Jake Schleppenbach, who is an undergraduate assistant.
Meyers also was a starting pitcher, along with Derek Burkamper, who is gone as well. But Jake Hohensee and Matt Waldron, fourth in starts, return, as do the top three relievers: Luis Alvarado, Chad Luensmann and Robbie Palkert. Alvarado and Luensmann were the closers.
Alvarado had a 1.72 earned-run average and 10 saves, Luensmann a 3.74 ERA and eight saves.
“We have a lot of veterans, so thankfully, we have a lot of eyes that are going to help us and help the other guys as well,” said Erstad.
Luensmann and Palkert pitched 43.1 and 41.1 innings, respectively, and having pitched during the summer, “we’ll shut them down for the fall, just because that’s what we do with those guys that throw a lot,” Erstad said of the fall. “We’re very excited to have them.
“That being said, we’re back to square one here. There’s nothing that happened in the past, good or bad, that has any indication on this team. This is a whole new identity, whole new group. They’ve got to earn everything that’s coming their way, so we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
The Huskers are “obviously not good enough that we’re where we want to go,” he said.
Fall practice is for getting better.
A few other things, among many, from the first day:
>>Senior outfielder Scott Schreiber, who led the team with a .330 average, seven home runs and 51 runs-batted-in, and Alvarado were selected in the MLB Draft but opted to return. Alvarado was a 13th-round pick of the Seattle Mariners, Schreiber a 26th-round pick of the Tampa Bay Rays. “We want guys here for the right reasons, and obviously, they had to turn down some money to do that,” said Erstad. “We’re very excited to have them.”
>>Alvarado also played the outfield and batted .283 with 25 RBIs. He plans to focus on pitching this season, however, his preference starting. “We’ll start there and see how it goes, but it’s fun to think about,” Erstad said. “We’ll see where this all plays out.”
>>Alvarado, from Salinas, Puerto Rico, didn’t pitch his first two seasons at Nebraska, but did at the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy. Pitching coach Ted Silva has been “asking for it since the day he got here, three years ago. He’s like, ‘Finally, you’re coming around,’ joking around,” said Erstad. “It’s about putting guys in the best position to succeed. I think it’s safe to say his future’s on the mound, so why not put him out there a little more? But we’ll see how it goes.”
>>Junior right-hander Reece Eddins, who had a 1.85 ERA in 48.2 innings two seasons ago, pitched only 10.1 innings in seven appearances last season before being sidelined and undergoing Tommy John surgery. He was granted a medical redshirt, and “his timeline puts him (back) sometime at the start of the season,” Erstad said. “So he’s progressing well.”
>>Senior right-hander Mike Warren, a transfer from Creighton who also underwent Tommy John surgery while redshirting, was granted a sixth season of eligibility, and is “ready to go,” said Erstad. “He was huge last year, not playing and still being able to be engaged as he was and helping the guys out . . . I’m really glad it worked out that way for him.”
>>Warren will still have to earn his place, as will Alvarado and the other pitchers. “This stuff will all play out. We’ve got eight games in the first two weekends, so we’re going to need all hands on deck,” Erstad said. “Nobody’s going to be stretched out probably more than five innings anyway, so that stuff . . . they get to decide who it is when the lights come on.”
>>Michael Pritchard (2011-12-13-14), a three-time All-Big Ten honoree who finished with 251 career hits, has returned to serve as graduate manager. Pritchard signed with the St. Louis Cardinals as an undrafted free agent and batted .277 over three seasons in 199 minor league games.
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.