LINCOLN — Darin Erstad still isn’t ready to go into too many specifics about lineups or rotations. During a time of year he has often called “hype season,” he would rather keep details about individual roles scarce.
So it was with a bemused look that the Nebraska baseball coach began a short press conference Thursday morning on the sixth floor of Memorial Stadium. Sitting in the back of the room moments earlier, he had just watched one of his starting infielders, Angelo Altavilla, name a few names at the podium to media members.
“I like how you guys asked Gelo about our guys because you know I won’t talk about them,” Erstad said. “So that was creative; that was nice.”
Over the course of his 11-minute session, Erstad did shed a bit more light on what the defending Big Ten regular-season champs might look like as they continue to work toward their Feb. 16 opener against UC Riverside in Arizona. Sophomore Ben Klenke will get the first crack at starting in center field. Sixth-year senior Matt Warren will be among NU’s more prominent starting pitchers. Luis Alvarado — already named the Friday starter after spending last year in the outfield and bullpen — may only fill in at designated hitter and first base when he’s not on the mound.
Meanwhile, batters and defenders will likely be shuffled around during the eight games in Arizona between Feb. 16-25. The Huskers have roles to figure out, but they are also scheming to improve on an attack that ranked 110th in scoring (5.8 runs per game) out of 295 teams nationally last year.
“As everybody knows, we need to have better offensive production and we’ve got to find ways to get that out there,” Erstad said. “We are always going to stress pitching and defense because I will argue anybody until I’m blue in the face that you have to have that to consistently win baseball games. And we will do that. We are going to put a solid defensive team out there, we’re going to pound the (strike) zone. And offensively we just gotta get the right pieces out there to maximize our run production.”
Altavilla — who hit .316 with 39 RBIs in 57 games last year — will play either third base or shortstop after starting 45 times at short in 2017. A few other Huskers are just as flexible, including sophomore Luke Roskam (first/third/catcher), junior Alex Henwood (infield) and true freshman Jaxon Hallmark (infield/outfield).
Among the pitchers Altavilla said he wouldn’t want to face right now are junior right-handed reliever Robbie Palkert — “(He) has kind of developed some real confidence that is pretty scary” — and junior lefty Jake McSteen, who appears to be a starting candidate.
“Just everybody,” Altavilla said. “We got a lot of good pitchers this year. Everybody is back from last year, all the (relief) pitchers, so it’s going to be scary on the mound too.”
Of course, there will be opportunities for others to grab playing time when the season begins. Erstad said he saw Klenke as the regular outfielder last year before Mojo Hagge took the job and ran with it as a true freshman.
“Ben’s done a very nice job,” Erstad said. “Very athletic, can run, just understands the game out there. He’s earned the right to start. We’ll see how long that goes and obviously things can change. But we do have a couple other pieces that can go out there so it’s going to be just piecing it together.”