Nebraska baseball’s team bus that’s bound for Arlington, Texas, is leaving at 5 a.m. Thursday morning. While the sun won’t be up when the Huskers hit the road, a little road trip never hurt anyone.
But for head coach Will Bolt, he’s hoping the 12-hour drive south does more than just provide his players with an opportunity to get some shut-eye or catchup on whatever TV show they’re watching. With a doubleheader against Northwestern State and UT Arlington on Friday and another on Saturday, the Huskers’ third trip to Texas to begin the 2022 campaign should be used as a bonding experience.
“A lot of guys have aspirations to play professional baseball. Long bus rides are kind of part of the gig,” Bolt said on Wednesday as his team warmed up prior to practice on a sun-splashed Haymarket Park field. “I’m going to look at it as a positive—it’s a way for our team to bond for an entire day, get to know each other a little better and prove that we can come out and overcome a little adversity.”
After a 1-6 start to the season, Bolt is looking to shake things up as his team heads to Texas, and it starts with the starting rotation.
Right-hander Koty Frank, who started the year as a middle reliever, will get the ball for the first game of Friday’s doubleheader against Northwestern State (3-4), which is slated for an 11 a.m. first pitch. Left-hander Kyle Perry will start the second game against UT Arlington (2-5), scheduled to be played shortly after at 3 p.m. Saturday’s rotation was still up in the air as of Wednesday.
The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Frank has been one of the Huskers’ best pitchers. The former junior-college product from Eastern Oklahoma State Community College has a 1.08 earned-run average in 8 1/3 innings of work. He’s struck out eight batters against four walks and has only given up one earned run.
“He’s worked fast, he’s competed in the strike zone, thrown strikes,” Bolt said of Frank. “Was right there in the conversation to be in the rotation before the year and has mastered his role right now. And I feel he has a good matchup there in that first game to get us off to a great start. We’ve gone to him in games where we’ve been behind and burned him for the weekend, so figure we can get him in that first game and maybe he can keep his pitch count down and go deep in the game and save our pen a little bit.”
Bolt has liked Frank’s approach this season. He doesn’t over-complicate things on the mound. He gets the ball and goes to work, not letting a lot of time pass between pitches, which, at times, leads some pitchers to think too much.
Getting strong starting pitching is something that has eluded the team so far this season. Bolt has had to visit the mound in a first inning already this season, and make a change as soon as the second. Perry’s ERA is sitting at 12.71 while Shay Schanaman’s is 10.13 and Dawson McCarville’s is 6.75.
Frank, Bolt said, will hopefully provide stability.
“That’s the point we’re trying to get to collectively as a pitching staff,” Bolt said. “He’s (Frank) not overthinking how the changeup before wasn’t exactly how he wanted it to be, or the slider didn’t feel 100 percent perfect today, or the fastball wasn’t moving exactly how he wanted it to. He’s just on attack, and we really want him to set the tone that way.”
Frank said he’s never started a Friday game in his college career, but it’s always been the goal. A starting spot in the rotation was what he was aiming for last year and against this past fall. But he trusts the coaching staff and knows it has faith in him.
Most importantly, Frank doesn’t want to be something he’s not on the mound. That’s a direct order from the head coach.
“Not trying to be a guy who blows it by people, I’m not the guy who throws the hardest or strikes out a bunch of people,” Frank said. “Just really staying in my role and what coach Bolt just talked to me about, not being a Superman and really step up and go outside of my role and just staying within myself.”
Frank throws four pitches, including the two-seam, a slider, a changeup and his patented slider-change. Not many others throw what Frank calls his slider-change. It stems from his childhood when he tried to master a changeup but couldn’t because his hand wasn’t big enough. So, he adapted and made the pitch his own.
“I threw it differently, and instead of kind of running and fading like a changeup, it broke, more like a slider,” Frank said. “When I got to junior college, my pitching coach said, ‘Hey, let’s throw a changeup here,’ in a bullpen, and I threw that pitch. He was like, ‘OK, that’s not a changeup,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I know, I can’t throw a regular changeup,’ so he said, ‘OK, let’s work on throwing a regular changeup,’ so it’s just something I taught myself when I was younger and it’s basically stuck with me my entire life.”
Max Anderson, the everyday third baseman, trusts Frank on the mound. The team knows Frank isn’t a strikeout pitcher, but what he can do is throw pitches that batters have a hard time barreling up and making solid contact with.
“It helps us not having hot shots hit at us,” Anderson said. “He’s going to get you involved and he’s going to pitch it and give us a chance.”
And Frank’s slider-change? Anderson has faced it many times before.
“It’s not a fun pitch to hit when you’re in the box,” Anderson said. “When he’s got his fastball moving six inches in on you and the slider-change, it’s just dropping off the table. It’s not a very fun thing to have to worry about.”
Anderson will try to be the one that leads the offense out of the rut it’s been in. The Huskers’ team batting average is just 0.247, which ranks 166th in the country. They’re averaging just four runs per game, tied for 224th.
The season-opener against Sam Houston on Feb. 18 was Anderson’s best outing. That night he went 3-for-5 at the plate and was a home run shy of hitting for the cycle. In the six games since then, though, the Millard West grad has gone 4-for-23.
Anderson, last year’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year, isn’t worried. It’s a long season filled with at-bats and opportunities.
“I think we’re right there. Baseball, it’s a game of failure. The Hall of Famers, they fail seven out of ten times, and they’re the best players to ever play,” Anderson said. “I just think we’re in a little slump right now, as everybody goes through, and I think if we can get out of it, it just takes one guy to say, ‘Enough’s enough,’ and I think it’ll spark the team.”
Once the team arrives at Arlington on Thursday, they’ll hold a practice that night. Saturday’s doubleheader is the same schedule as Friday’s, with Northwestern State being the first opponent at 11 a.m. on both days.