LINCOLN — The message hit home for Luis Alvarado in June as he went through Major League Baseball’s draft process. Just about every pro team viewed him as a pitcher.
Seattle thought enough of Nebraska’s 6-foot-4 right-hander to select him in the 13th round — 393rd overall — but the parties never reached a final number in contract negotiations. While teammate Jake Meyers signed for roughly $125,000 after being taken by Houston two picks earlier, Alvarado opted to return to Lincoln for his senior season.
As the reigning Big Ten regular-season champion Huskers began fall practices on a crisp afternoon Tuesday at Haymarket Park, Alvardo said he’ll take the hint from pro scouts and devote his efforts to becoming a full-time pitcher.
The native Puerto Rican is aiming to fill a starting role for Nebraska, which has two open spots in the weekend rotation after Meyers went pro and Derek Burkamper graduated. Alvarado hasn’t started on the mound since his junior year of high school and began pitching for NU only last season, posting a 1.72 ERA and 15 strikeouts across 152⁄3 innings while notching 10 saves as a co-closer with Chad Luensmann.
“I’m not going to just quit hitting, but the concentration will be on pitching,” said Alvarado, who played mostly left and center field last season. “… I think it was a good decision, giving myself another full year of pitching. I think it will be good for me.”
Wherever Alvarado ends up will have a ripple effect on the rest of the team. Should he retire his bat — he hit .283 with 12 doubles, two homers and 25 RBIs in 57 games in the spring — it would leave sophomore Mojo Hagge as the lone everyday outfielder back. But having Alvarado’s 90-93 mph fastball, change-up and self-learned “slurve” on the mound for more innings is “fun to think about,” coach Darin Erstad said.
The importance of fall workouts for Alvarado will be to get him on a throwing program, Erstad said. He will spend concentrated time with pitching coach Ted Silva, who had been trying to persuade the toolsy prospect to think pitching-first for years.
“We probably won’t stretch him out anything crazy,” Erstad said. “But it’s a fresh arm that hasn’t thrown a lot. So it’s one of those things that it’s a nice option to have.”
Alvarado competed for the Cape Cod League’s Bourne Braves during the summer as a long reliever, navigating three or four innings at a time while not hitting at all. His final line of 192⁄3 innings, 18 strikeouts and a 0.91 ERA told him he could go longer than the one-inning appearances he made as a junior at Nebraska.
With senior Scott Schreiber also turning down an MLB draft selection (26th round, 769th overall by Tampa Bay), the Huskers return six lineup regulars. With Schreiber mainly at designated hitter and outfield, others back include catcher Jesse Wilkening, third baseman Luke Roskam, shortstop Angelo Altavilla and Hagge in the outfield.
The Huskers will replace the right side of their infield after longtime reliables Jake Schleppenbach (second base) and Ben Miller (first) graduated. They have a bevy of options — there are nine freshmen listed among roughly a dozen newcomers — and could shift either Roskam or Altavilla to those spots if needed.
“It’s new voices. It’s a new identity,” Erstad said. “Every year is just a little bit different. Yeah, you do the same fundamentals, but I don’t know what this group is going to be like. This is their team. We’re going to help them through this a little bit, but this group has an opportunity to do something. And what that is, I don’t know. But they’re going to be the ones that become what the identity of the team (is) by how they go about their business every day. What I’ve seen so far, they’re in the right direction.”
The coach also said a bullpen ravaged by injuries in the spring is “on their way” for next season, adding that NU’s staff is pleased with how all have progressed. That includes junior Reece Eddins, who received a medical redshirt after undergoing Tommy John surgery in April; junior Zack Engelken, who didn’t pitch in 2017 after suffering setbacks to his surgically repaired shoulder; redshirt freshman Connor Curry (broken toe); sophomore Paul Tillotson (shoulder surgery in March); and junior Ethan Frazier, whose lat muscle separated from the bone in an emergency start at the Big Ten tournament.
In the starting rotation, Friday ace Jake Hohensee returns while junior and Omaha Westside product Matt Waldron is the only other healthy Husker back who started multiple games.
Altavilla said he’s ready to get to know his teammates and begin to see how all the pieces could come together for a run at a fourth NCAA tournament berth in the last five seasons.
Fall practices will conclude with the Red-White Series sometime in mid-October.
“You learn just so much on the first day, today even,” Altavilla said. “You learn what new guys’ tendencies are and how they act and how well they adjust to college baseball. We’re all pulling for each other, and we’ll help any way possible.”
» Altavilla and reliever Robbie Palkert were part of the same St. Cloud (Minn.) Rox team that won the Northwoods League Summer Collegiate World Series in the full three games. Both had to leave the club after Game 1 for the first day of classes at Nebraska.
While Altavilla shined with a .387 on-base percentage in 44 games with the Rox, Palkert was even more impressive. The junior from Golden Valley, Minnesota, struck out 44 in 412⁄3 innings while crafting a 1.29 ERA and 0.96 WHIP by effectively mixing speeds.
“That was the best I’ve ever seen him play,” Altavilla said. “He completely dominated that league. He could only go five innings every game, but when he did, it was very cool to see that.”
» Erstad said Palkert and Luensmann won’t throw this fall after pitching for summer teams. Luensmann logged 202⁄3 innings in the Cape Cod League to go with a 3.91 ERA and 19 strikeouts.
» The only newcomer mentioned by name during Monday’s media availability was freshman catcher Gunner Hellstrom out of Simi Valley, California. “All the freshman are impressive. They (have) a lot of power,” Alvarado said. “Gunner, impressive catcher. And I think it’s going to be a good year. Really good kids this year.”
» Erstad called former Omaha Skutt and Creighton pitcher Matt Warren “full go” after the righty was granted a sixth year of eligibility. He sat out while recovering from Tommy John surgery last season.