If you haven’t heard the saying by now, you probably haven’t been paying much attention to Nebraska baseball: “Gritty beats pretty.”
Husker senior Joe Acker shared the phrase with reporters during Wednesday’s Zoom news conference. “That’s a saying we’ve been using a lot this year,” he said.
It helps explain an 11-4 record, tied for second in the Big Ten, and six-game winning streak going into this weekend’s three-game series against 7-8 Illinois in Champaign.
The starting rotation is unchanged, with Cade Povich, the Big Ten Pitcher of the Week, on Friday, followed by Chance Hroch on Saturday and Shay Schanaman on Sunday.
First-pitch times were adjusted because of high-wind forecasts for Friday and Saturday. Friday’s opener is slated for 6 p.m. and Saturday’s game for 5 p.m., with Sunday’s still at noon.
The games will be televised by BTN+.
Acker, now batting leadoff after hitting ninth, is a good spokesperson for “gritty beats pretty,” an attitude instilled in the team by Coach Will Bolt and his staff because that’s how Acker sees himself. “Some guys want to be, you know, the home run hitters, the guys that are driving in all the runs or having a different kind of approach,” said Acker.
“For me, I have the kind of nitty-gritty approach and do whatever it takes. That’s kind of who I am as a person, who I’ve always been as a ballplayer. I’ve never been super-flashy . . . never had the prettiest swing, whatever you want to call it.”
Acker’s numbers aren’t flashy. But they’re solid. He’s batting .271 with two doubles, a home run and nine runs-batted-in. He’s scored 11 runs and walked a team-high 12 times.
He has “pretty much sold out to being the ballplayer where it’s, ‘Whatever I’ve got to do to get on base and move the offense that’s what I’m going to do,’” Bolt said. “He’s in a 3-2 count about every at-bat, it feels like, and just really competitive for us, whether it be at the leadoff spot, the nine-hole.”
Acker “clearly understands what’s expected of him,” said Bolt.
Understanding one’s role has become a characteristic of these Huskers.
Jaxon Hallmark wants to lead the Big Ten in bunt base hits and stolen bases, Bolt said, and Luke Roskam understands if his hitting focus is the middle of the field, he’ll be successful. He leads the team with a .379 batting average, .724 slugging percentage and .538 on-base percentage.
That’s not a misprint. Roskam has been on base more often than not.
Mojo Hagge, like Acker and Roskam, a senior who elected to return, “is in that category, too,” Bolt said. “He’s a much better bunter. He’s not punching out. He’s just grinding out his at-bats as well.”
Nebraska’s pitching staff will be challenged this weekend by an opponent that ranks second in the Big Ten with a .274 team batting average, with the second-fewest strikeouts, 119. But Illini pitching has struggled, allowing a conference-high 155 hits and 101 runs, second-most in the Big Ten.
Illinois pitchers have allowed 23 home runs, including 15 during a three-game series against Northwestern in Champaign last weekend. The Illini went 1-2.
In contrast to the pitching staff’s combined numbers, Friday night’s scheduled starter, left-hander Nathan Lavender, is 3-0 with a 0.75 earned-run-average and 21 strikes, with just one walk, in 12 innings of relief. He will be making his first start.
Nebraska’s dugout has a board on which Bolt keeps track of such things as “grit plays . . . just little things that maybe don’t show up in the boxscore as much,” said Bolt “But we know that if you can fill up those grit plays that we’ve got a shot to be a productive offense that day.”
It’s a catchy saying, for sure. But it’s more than a saying. It has substance.
“I think guys have definitely embraced it,” Acker said. “And I think it helps guys stop thinking about themselves and being internal and really just care about doing what it takes to win.”
They need to remember, “gritty beats pretty.”
That’s the nitty-gritty of it.