Darin Erstad sees healthy future for Husker baseball despite painful 2018. Here’s why

Darin Erstad sees healthy future for Husker baseball despite painful 2018. Here’s why
Darin Erstad understands the frustration created by last season, and he accepts responsibility for fixing it. If not? "I’ll fire myself if I have to," he said. MADDIE WASHBURN/THE WORLD-HERALD

Darin Erstad said he was never tempted to make any staff changes.

Not in the immediate aftermath of Nebraska’s worst baseball campaign by winning percentage in 21 years. Not after enduring an extra-long offseason that came with missing the Big Ten tournament. Not when fans reached out to him with strongly worded emails and tweets about his assistant coaches.

That would be the easy way out, Erstad said, “the biggest scapegoat ever.” Structurally and culturally, he believes the program is strong.

“It’s on my watch and it’s not their fault; it’s my fault,” said Erstad, who enters his eighth season leading the Huskers. “I’ll fire myself if I have to. That’s the way my mind is. Maybe one of my faults is I’m too loyal. But that’s just how I am and that’s not going to change. That’s just how it is.”

In an interview with The World-Herald, the coach insisted this isn’t a case of stubbornness. After all, Nebraska finished at least second in the Big Ten standings four out of five years before ending 10th in the 13-team league last spring. NU had qualified for three of the previous four NCAA tournaments. It had established a foundation for winning baseball with reliable pitching and defense.

Last season was so far off the pace — “We got punched in the face,” Erstad said — that determining whether it was an anomaly will be a major storyline in the months ahead. Healthier pitching and a strong recruiting class are reasons for optimism. A treacherous nonconference schedule and unproven offense are cold reminders of challenges to come.

But first things first, Erstad said. Results on the mound and in the field need to improve.

NU never ranked below 37th nationally in fielding percentage under Erstad until coming in 152nd (.969) last year. Position flexibility — touted as a strength going in — hurt at times. Luke Roskam played catcher, first and third base, while true freshman Jaxon Hallmark manned the left side of the infield and all three outfield spots.

They combined for 19 of the team’s 60 errors. Meanwhile, the Huskers tried nine starting outfielders and mixed and matched on the infield. Bunt coverage was erratic. Fly balls were often too much of an adventure.

A deeper lineup, which Erstad believes he has, should keep players from oscillating positions as often. Roskam, for example, will settle more into the catcher role vacated when Jesse Wilkening turned pro last summer.

Pitching, meanwhile, was the story of Nebraska’s forgettable 24-28 campaign in 2018. Two of the team’s top candidates for the weekend rotation are junior right-hander Chad Luensmann and sophomore lefty Connor Curry, and both missed the entire year recovering from Tommy John surgery. Other key arms such as Robbie Palkert, Reece Eddins, Paul Tillotson, Ethan Frazier and Nate Fisher either missed time with injury or are another year removed from major surgeries.

The telling statistic: a team earned-run average of 5.70, which ranked 231st out of 297 Division I schools. It was the worst ranking by far under Erstad and pitching coach Ted Silva, whose previous four squads were 40th, 68th, 24th and 79th in the category. By the end of last spring, the Huskers had no healthy lefties with ERAs of less than 7.00.

Erstad said the program left no stone unturned in the offseason examining the source of all the injuries. NU, he said, is more aware of pitch counts than most teams nationally. The approach of coaches is to sequence everything players do, including general throwing, long toss, bullpen sessions, weightlifting and treatment.

“This falls on me,” Erstad said. “Everybody’s going to point fingers around, ‘It’s this, it’s that.’ No, it’s me. It’s under my watch and I take full responsibility for it. I’ve never micromanaged in my life but I’m probably micromanaging this a little bit.

“There’s so many levels of it. But I know that going to sleep at night, we’ve done everything we can to put them in position to be healthy.”

The results have been positive this offseason. The only pitcher set to miss major time is true freshman and Papillion-La Vista graduate Caleb Feekin (elbow injury suffered during high school basketball). Fisher, a senior lefty, sprained an ankle getting out of his car this week.

The team also lost multiple underclassman pitchers in Zack Engelken (transferred to Kansas), Andrew Abrahamowicz (transferred to Bowling Green) and Jake McSteen (graduated).

But an influx of talent has moods high around Haymarket Park. NU’s 2018 recruiting class ranks 36th according to Perfect Game after groups coming in 100-plus (2017), 75th (2016), 100-plus (2015) and 25th (2014). Spencer Schwellenbach from Michigan is the headliner — the infielder/pitcher turned down professional baseball in the summer and swatted two home runs during the Red-White fall series. Pitchers Colby Gomes of Millard West and lefty Kyle Perry of Millard South are among others likely to contribute quickly.

Everyone will learn where they stand during a nonconference schedule Erstad calls “up there” with the best Nebraska has had in recent memory. Four games against College World Series champion Oregon State next month and a pair against CWS qualifiers Texas Tech and Mississippi State come in the first two weeks of the season. NCAA participants Baylor and New Mexico State also are on the slate along with a home series against Pac-12 blue blood Arizona State.

Erstad said the slate fulfills a promise he makes to recruits that Nebraska will challenge them and provide an opportunity to be the best. The Huskers can finish a few games over .500 and “have a chance” at an NCAA at-large spot, which is more palatable to him than winning 39 games with a lesser schedule and missing out.

“I mean, you gotta win; it’s pretty simple,” Erstad said. “There are no pats on the back in college sports. And especially here at Nebraska, I don’t want that. It’s not what I signed up for. We gotta win.”

The other piece is the offense, whose 6.5 runs per game were good for 53rd nationally, but a unit that will miss its biggest run producers by far in the departed Scott Schreiber and Wilkening. If bunting, power and steals won’t be key tenets of NU’s attack, Erstad said bounce-back years by proven veterans will be good starts. Senior infielder Angelo Altavilla, for example, hit .316 as a sophomore before dropping to .228 a year ago.

“I would say we’re a doubles-hitting team,” Erstad said. “We have some guys that can run a little bit and take the extra base. Every free 90 (feet) you can get is huge, and for us that is what it’s going to be. Are we going to hit 100 home runs? Nope. But that’s OK.”

If Nebraska can return to the postseason, Erstad said, he’s well aware the next step is to “get over the hump.” The Huskers had gone 1-11 in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments in the three years prior to 2018.

Athletic Director Bill Moos said this month he believes health and a resumption of previous trends will be enough for Erstad to prove last season was more fluke than fate.

“He’s a solid, competitive, passionate coach who wears it on his sleeve,” Moos said. “He’s not one to run around and toot the horn — certainly not his — and be overly optimistic. But what I’m hearing in our discussions, he’s very excited about the season and the prospects that we’re going to be hopefully in the mix.”

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