Nebraska coach Darin Erstad hopes newcomers can provide some mojo again this spring

Nebraska coach Darin Erstad hopes newcomers can provide some mojo again this spring
Nebraska is scheduled for 11 games in all before the March 8 home opener against Cal Poly and will have 22 contests before Big Ten action begins. “The bottom line is to play to win, and that’s what we’re going to do every game,” NU coach Darin Erstad said. (World-Herald News Service)

LINCOLN — Mojo Hagge remembers exactly what he was feeling the last time the Nebraska baseball team was ramping up for its season opener. Anxiety about what his role might be. Uncertainty about whether he belonged. Curiosity what he could do if given a chance.

Eight games later and before the Huskers played at home, the true freshman from Omaha Skutt was hitting .393 (11 for 28) and leading off for the eventual Big Ten Conference regular-season champions.

“I was so nervous this time last year,” Hagge said. “Just thinking about if I’m going to travel, how things are going to go, what’s going to happen. Being in the position I am now, I feel for some of these younger guys and what they’re thinking. But they all did the exact same thing I did and they prepared themselves so that when their opportunity comes, they’ll be ready.”

The 5-foot-7 outfielder — whose diving catches, floppy hair and memorable first name helped him become a fan favorite — is Exhibit A for coach Darin Erstad’s open-competition philosophy. The best players play, and roles are earned.

That approach will be on full display as Nebraska opens its season against UC Riverside at 5 p.m. Friday to begin a four-game set with the Highlanders and Washington State from the spring training home of the Los Angeles Angels at Tempe (Arizona) Diablo Stadium. The Big Red is scheduled for 11 games in all before the March 8 home opener against Cal Poly and will have 22 contests before Big Ten action begins.

“The bottom line is to play to win, and that’s what we’re going to do every game,” Erstad said. “There’s no spring training games, there’s no exhibition games. We gotta be ready to rock and roll right out of the game. Our boys are ready, so here we go.”

Still, Erstad and his staff will be watching extra close early on for another Hagge-esque breakout. It could come from any of the eight true freshmen on the team — Texas native Jaxon Hallmark has drawn rave reviews for his ability to play both infield and outfield and homered in the Red-White series last fall. It could come from Lincoln Pius X grad and juco transfer Nolan Hakel, an accomplished batter who joined Nebraska from Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College in the offseason after two-way standout Jake Meyers went pro.

Also the hitting coach, Erstad was troubled by the spike in strikeouts (up to 7.5 per game compared to 6.2 in 2016) and only a microscopic bump in on-base percentage (up to .364 from .361) for last year’s team  , which still managed to finish 35-22-1 and make an NCAA regional for a third time in four years. Put the ball in play because anything can happen.

“I know in this day and age, strikeouts are OK,” Erstad said. “But that’s if you’re hitting bombs. And we’re not.”

The Huskers launched 25 home runs last year and ranked 250th of 295 NCAA teams in homers per game. At 5.8 runs per contest, they ranked 128th in scoring while the pitching (40th in earned-run average at 3.73) and defense (37th in fielding percentage at .977) again did the heavy lifting.

Offense has  been the culprit in Nebraska’s 1-10 postseason record the last three years, with the team being outhit 118-86 and outscored 64-38. So, yes, finding consistent hitters is a priority.

But the “where” is as important as the “who” as the journey begins in Arizona. Position flexibility across the infield allows the Huskers to maximize their production. Junior Angelo Altavilla (shortstop/third base), sophomore Luke Roskam (first/third/catcher), junior Alex Henwood (infield) and Hallmark (second/short/third/outfield) are the Swiss Army knives that can help make it happen. Senior Luis Alvarado — the announced Friday starting pitcher after playing outfield and closing last year — will man first and DH this spring when he’s not on the mound.

“That whole flexibility thing, it’s huge for us,” Altavilla said. “We have so many guys that can bounce around from second to third. It’s crucial to have those guys who can play any position, and I think we’ll be very fine with that.”

Said Erstad: “We’re going to have to mix and match and get a little creative this weekend. But that just gives everybody an opportunity and gets everybody’s feet wet and we’ll get going.”

The same search for roles is underway on the pitching side as well. None of the four named starters for the opening weekend — Alvarado, junior lefty Jake McSteen, junior lefty Nate Fisher and senior righty Matt Warren — started a game last year. These will be the first collegiate starts for Alvarado and Fisher in 40 combined appearances, while Warren (Tommy John surgery) last pitched in a live game on March 20, 2016, wearing a Creighton uniform. McSteen made all seven of his career starts in 2016 before moving to the bullpen, where he has thrived.

Erstad said he hopes an unsettled relief corps sorts itself out by the time conference play begins. Last year’s Friday starter, Jake Hohensee, is likely NU’s most high-leverage stopper. But he’ll have to prove that in games and will begin as a once-a-weekend option along with a trio of other right-handers in redshirt freshman Paul Tillotson, junior Ethan Frazier and junior Mitch Steinhoff.

Junior righties Robbie Palkert (2.61 ERA) and Matt Waldron (4.09) are more proven options whose jobs may also fluctuate as necessary. Junior righties Reece Eddins (Tommy John) and Zack Engelken (shoulder), meanwhile, are working back from injury and should be available at some point this spring.

“When everybody gets healthy, I’m very excited about what we have,” Erstad said. “Even with a couple guys out, I’m still very confident in what we have. But some of those guys are on pitch counts now. So who’s a true closer? Who’s a true get-out guy? Who’s a true setup guy? Right now we’re just going to have to piece it together and see how that works.”

Nebraska’s schedule sets up favorably on paper to again contend for the Big Ten. Their four road series are against squads that didn’t make the league tournament last year in Ohio State (March 30-April 1), Michigan State (April 6-8), Rutgers (April 20-22) and Illinois (May 17-19). Home series are set against teams all voted in the preseason top six by Big Ten coaches: Minnesota (voted third, March 23-25), Iowa (sixth, April 13-15), Maryland (fourth, May 4-6) and Indiana (first, May 11-13).

But first of all, the Huskers need to see who can perform in front of a crowd.

“What’s the identity of this team? I don’t know,” Erstad said. “We’re going to find out. They think they’re pretty good. We’re going to find out real quick (this weekend) where they’re at.”

Infield

Returners: Angelo Altavilla, Jr., SS/3B; Luke Roskam, So., 1B/3B/C; Jesse Wilkening, Jr., C; Brison Cronenbold, Sr., SS.

Newcomers: Jaxon Hallmark, Fr., IF/OF, Gunner Hellstrom, Fr., C; Zac Luckey, Fr., IF.

The word: The right side of the diamond is open after longtime reliables Jake Schleppenbach and Ben Miller graduated. Expect first base to be a rotation, whether it’s Luis Alvarado on days after he pitches, Roskam or occasionally Scott Schreiber. Wisconsin native Alex Henwood, a speedy junior, will have first shot at second base. Altavilla — second on the team last year with a .316 average in 57 games — is set to be a regular on the left side, with senior Brison Cronenbold also a factor as the team’s best defensive shortstop after battling a chronic back injury last year. Texas native and true freshman Jaxon Hallmark will see plenty of playing time at second base and across the infield and could run away with a starting job if he gets hot early on. Wilkening hit .247 in 50 games last year at catcher and should be a fixture behind the plate.

Outfield

Returners: Scott Schreiber, Sr.; Mojo Hagge, So.

Newcomers: Mike Addante, Fr.; Kennet Sorenson, Fr.; Nolan Hakel, Jr.

The word: All-Big Ten first-teamer Schreiber spurned professional baseball for one more college season and will be a leading power candidate in right field — and occasionally at designated hitter — for Nebraska. Last year’s freshman surprise, Mojo Hagge, is set for a spring in left. Sophomore and Seward native Ben Klenke will be a new face in center after appearing in 11 games (starting three) in 2017 at the spot occupied by departed standout Jake Meyers. Hallmark is another possibility in the outfield along with Hakel, a former Lincoln Pius X player who hit .343 in 89 career games at Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College the last two years.

Starting Pitching

Returners: None

Newcomers: None

The word: Confusing, right? Last year’s Friday starter, Jake Hohensee, is now at the back of the bullpen while the other weekend pitchers from 2017 graduated or went pro. Senior Luis Alvarado — a power pitcher who served as co-closer last year — is set to go Fridays. Sixth-year senior Matt Warren will be a lead contributor as well after recovering from Tommy John surgery. Junior lefty Jake McSteen (2.04 ERA in 392⁄3 innings) didn’t start any games a season ago but will also be stretched out for key contests and is a real breakout threat. Junior lefty Nate Fisher (5.53) gets an opening-weekend start as well. Other possibilities include junior righties Zack Engelken and Matt Waldron (4.09, six starts). Engelken didn’t pitch last spring while healing from shoulder surgery and won’t be quite ready for opening weekend but started five times as a freshman in 2016.

Relief Pitching

Returners: Reece Eddins, RH, Jr.; Robbie Palkert, RH, Jr.; Matt Waldron, RH, Jr.; Paul Tillotson, RH, RFr.; Byron Hood, RH, Jr.

Newcomers: Andrew Abrahamowicz, RH, Fr.; Max Schreiber, RH, Fr.

The word: Injured, reshuffled and with some new faces, the bullpen has a much different look. Hohensee will be a back-end arm along with Palkert (2.61). Little else is certain, though, as Tillotson (shoulder surgery), Eddins (Tommy John) and junior righty Ethan Frazier (separated lat muscle) are all rounding into shape after suffering major injuries last year. Redshirt freshman lefty Connor Curry (Tommy John) and co-closer Chad Luensmann (arm) — a junior righty who was actually preparing to start this year — are already ruled out for the spring. Waldron should reprise his role as a long man while freshmen Abrahamowicz and Max Schreiber will have a chance to figure into the equation as well.

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