LINCOLN — Chad Luensmann cut loose from a mound for the first time since his elbow surgery last winter. Angelo Altavilla smiled like a hitter who regained some confidence from summer league. Fifteen new players milled around the field at Haymarket Park ready to start proving themselves.
On the first day of fall baseball practice for Nebraska, work and hope were the prevailing themes.
“It feels like a clean slate,” Luensmann said. “We’ve got a lot of new guys in and we’re just gonna see what this team is all about. We’re going to try to make it a little different from last year, but today is day one.”
The Huskers endured a postseason-less 24-28 campaign a season ago, with pitching injuries lowlighting the frustration. Luensmann was the first to go down, succumbing to Tommy John surgery after Nebraska had him penciled in as the Friday starter. Now the 6-foot-4 right-handed junior and former bullpen ace from Pennsylvania is slowly ramping up activity — he won’t throw competitively in fall ball — while eyeing a prominent role next spring.
Other pitchers also are on the comeback trail. Reliever Reece Eddins is full go after returning from Tommy John surgery midway through last season, NU coach Darin Erstad said. Robbie Palkert will sit the next few months and is a “maybe” to open next year after undergoing the same procedure in the spring.
Left-hander Connor Curry also missed all of 2018 from Tommy John but plans to be on the mound as practices pile up. Others like junior Paul Tillotson (shoulder) and sophomore Andrew Abrahamowicz (mono) are further removed from serious setbacks recently in their careers.
“They’re all in kind of different phases of being ready,” Erstad said. “Maybe a couple of them throw at the end of the fall. Some of them we won’t see until the season. But overall they’re doing a really nice job, not just arm-wise, but you can tell they put in some work body-wise. We’ve got a bunch of ticked-off guys on this team, so they’re highly motivated.”
Other news and notes from Thursday’s media availability:
» Three junior pitchers from last year left the team in Jake McSteen, Zack Engelken and Mitch Steinhoff. McSteen was NU’s Saturday starter until the lefty went down with an arm injury, and he graduated in the offseason. Engelken, an oft-injured power righty, transferred to Kansas.
» Nebraska added a pair of transfers, left-hander Gareth Stroh and righty Trey Kissack, who will sit out next season by NCAA rule. Stroh, a senior from Gibbon, went 5-2 with a 4.93 ERA last season at Purdue. Kissack, from Grand Island, made three starts for UNC Greensboro a year ago.
» Curtis Ledbetter worked his first practice as a volunteer assistant coach after spending the last 10 years as NU’s director of operations. Last year’s volunteer assistant, Jeff Tezak, transitioned out of the program to focus on his master’s degree, Erstad said.
The team also announced that Tanner Lubach, a former Husker from 2013-15 before playing two years in the Los Angeles Angels organization, is NU’s new director of operations.
Erstad said Ledbetter will serve as the Huskers’ first-base coach going forward. The NCAA is widely expected to allow teams to add a third full-time paid assistant in a measure that will be voted on in April 2019.
“Led’s been wanting to coach for 10 years,” Erstad said of the former standout hitter for NU teams from 2003-05. “That’s where his passion is and he’s walking away from a pretty good paycheck to do that, so he’s fired up. I think he was probably dressed six hours ago and ready for practice.”
» Nebraska had no left-handed pitching options with ERAs under 7.00 by the end of last season. Freshmen Caleb Feekin (Papillion-La Vista), Tyler Martin (Webb City, Missouri) and Kyle Perry (Millard South) will be part of the mix going forward along with Curry.
» Forty-two players are listed on NU’s roster, which must be whittled to 35 by NCAA rule by next season.
» Altavilla is among current Huskers who spent the summer playing elsewhere. The shortstop/third baseman hit .316 as a sophomore but followed up last year with a .228 mark because he put too much pressure on himself, he said. Now a senior, he’s coming off a .313 average in 41 games with the Northwood League’s Waterloo Bucks.
» Erstad said exhibition home games against Wichita State (Sept. 22) and Kansas (Oct. 6) will be helpful by giving coaches another evaluation tool.
“You can kind of get a false sense of security playing against yourself the entire fall,” Erstad said. “Even though next Saturday we’re not gonna be really prepared to play a game, you’re gonna get to see them. Then hopefully Oct. 6 is a little bit better measuring stick as far as where guys are at.”