Injuries, defense and in-state recruiting to blame for Nebraska baseball’s struggles

Injuries, defense and in-state recruiting to blame for Nebraska baseball’s struggles
Jake McSteen made a temporary return to the mound after suffering an arm injury in early spring. However, he ultimately was shut down for the season. (World-Herald News Service)

Members of the Kansas State radio broadcast team stormed into the Haymarket Park press box.

A play that went as a Nebraska hit needs to be changed to an error, they told the NU scorekeeper. Most Division I infielders would get an out on that particular ground ball, they said. And it isn’t fair to the Kansas State pitcher whose ERA would take a hit.

The argument lasted a few minutes, with both sides eventually walking away in frustration. The scoring decision stood.

That scene — a fight between two sub-.500 baseball teams following a 4-3 Wildcat win in mid-April — captures the mood that surrounded Nebraska’ second-worst baseball season by winning percentage since 1975. Nitpicking the small stuff because the big picture was too unseemly to focus on. Identifying a problem but being unable to do anything about it.

One year after claiming the Big Ten regular-season title, the Huskers aren’t part of this week’s eight-team league tournament, which happens to be at at TD Ameritrade Park, just 60 miles from Haymarket Park.

At 24-28 (8-14), NU finished the most games under .500 since 1997, the last year of the John Sanders era.

A lagging recent postseason record — a combined 1-11 in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments since 2015 — won’t get any worse because Nebraska didn’t qualify for either event for the first time under seventh-year coach Darin Erstad.

So what happened?

Injuries

There is a not-so-far-fetched alternate reality in which Nebraska’s weekend rotation is entirely different than the one that navigated most of this spring.

Imagine Chad Luensmann, Jake McSteen and Jake Meyers as the Big Ten hurlers for the Huskers.

But Luensmann, a junior right-hander, underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery in January. Junior lefty McSteen went down with an arm ailment early in the spring and briefly attempted a comeback before being shut down. Meyers, NU’s ace in 2017, opted to turn pro instead of returning for his senior year.

Those changes had a ripple effect on the roster. Luis Alvarado, a senior in his first season pitching as a college starter, struggled to a 7.75 ERA in league play and was eventually demoted from the Friday role. Nate Fisher (9.39 Big Ten ERA) didn’t stick as a weekend starter, and Nebraska skipped senior Matt Warren (4.91) for one Sunday start as it searched for more reliable options.

Junior righty Matt Waldron developed into NU’s best starting pitcher, but his overall ERA of 4.26 didn’t come close to cracking the Big Ten’s top 15.

Injuries also ravaged the bullpen. Offseason Tommy John surgery claimed all of 2018 for redshirt freshman southpaw Connor Curry, while junior Robbie Palkert had  the same procedure after just a few games. Junior Reece Eddins returned from injury to pitch in eight games — with a 9.00 ERA, he clearly wasn’t 100 percent — and power-throwing righty Zack Engelken (arm discomfort) shut himself down after throwing just 11⅔ innings.

Junior Ethan Frazier, redshirt freshman Paul Tillotson and true freshman Andrew Abrahamowicz each pitched with sporadic results after enduring long-term injuries or illnesses in 2017.

It all added up to a team ERA of 5.70, which ranks 232nd out of 297 Division I teams. It’s the worst ranking under Erstad and pitching coach Ted Silva, whose previous  four teams were 40th, 68th, 24th and 79th.

Erstad and his support staff have said they plan to reevaluate their throwing program going forward. In what areas and how drastically remain to be seen.

Defense

Statistics don’t bear out how poorly Nebraska fielders played this year. Bad bunt coverage, for example, turned multiple would-be sacrifices into base hits as parts of big innings. Inexperienced outfielders often took longer routes to fly balls that were  outs last year and  extra bases this season .

NU never ranked below 37th nationally in fielding percentage under Erstad until coming in 149th (.969) this year. It’s probably the most frustrating part of the Huskers’ struggles because it is something they can control.

Position flexibility — touted as an advantage before the season — hurt the Huskers here. Luke Roskam committed a team-high 11 errors playing third base (29 games), first base (10) and catcher (13). Freshman Jaxon Hallmark made eight errors while starting at all three outfield spots, shortstop and third base across 50 games. Angelo Altavilla and Zac Luckey also combined for nine errors while bouncing around the left side of the diamond.

Nine players started in the outfield. Rhythm was hard to come by.

Recruiting

While many of Nebraska’s best pitchers missed time with injuries, NU’s best hitters turned in All-Big Ten types of seasons.

But the overall depth of the roster was sorely lacking. For pitching, that manifested into a 3-7 midweek record that included an 0-4 mark against Creighton and UNO. For hitting, NU’s “open competition” approach that produced walk-on Mojo Hagge’s breakout 2017 campaign turned into the team simply rotating outfield starters in the hopes that someone would stick.

The Huskers’ situation looks all the worse when checking some of the in-state talent that got away. Wichita State infielder Alec Bohm (Omaha Roncalli) is a projected first-round draft pick in June who was lightly recruited by NU. Two of the most reliable bullpen arms for Big Ten regular-season champion Minnesota are Joshua Culliver (Creighton Prep) and Jackson Rose (Omaha Westside). Gareth Stroh (Gibbon) is a weekend starter for league runner-up Purdue.

Texas A&M has three Lincoln products  thriving on its roster. Michael Helman (Pius X) is second in the SEC with a .365 batting average and Logan Foster (Southwest) leads the Aggies with eight home runs. Nolan Hoffman (Southeast) paces the league with 12 saves.

Recruiting has been a contentious point among fans for a few years, and some national outlets confirm the sentiment. Perfect Game, which ranks its top-100 college baseball recruiting classes, pegged Nebraska in the following order since 2011: 47th, 100-plus, 29th, 25th, 100th, 73rd and 100-plus. The 2018 class is 44th and the 2019 group is 51st.

Erstad has said many times the Big Ten’s rules against “oversigning” recruiting classes put its teams at a competitive disadvantage compared to other schools that can more easily fill roster gaps created by players’ early departure via the draft.

Weather

Baseball is hard enough with a routine. But conditions kept Nebraska from finding a groove all spring.

Yes, all northern teams deal with weather. No Big Ten team, though, had more league games canceled because of conditions. Many of the games the Huskers did play pushed the limit of the league’s “RealFeel” rule, which requires the  temperature to feel at least 28 degrees at first pitch.

Cold and wet conditions also conspired to help minimize Nebraska’s considerable home-field advantage by keeping crowds away for much of the year. The Huskers’ 13-12 home mark is its worst in the 17-year history of Haymarket Park. The Huskers had been 339-121-1 previously.

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