LINCOLN — Matt Warren spent the last year rehabbing with his Nebraska teammates not knowing if he would even be eligible to pitch in 2018. Zack Engelken never saw the mound last spring while enduring complications from shoulder surgery.
So while Nebraska’s final two baseball games in its Red-White series Monday night at Haymarket Park were technically just scrimmages in front of 462 people, the conclusion of fall practice felt like more than that for two pitchers on the mend and looking to contribute on the field starting in February.
The Red team, stacked with veterans and upperclassmen, picked up five-inning wins of 9-4 and 8-6 over the Whites to complete the sweep after beating the less experienced unit 8-5 on Friday. But what Warren will remember is working through troubles with his change-up and slider while competing in front of a crowd for the first time since suffering an injury 19 months ago that led to Tommy John surgery and the ensuing lengthy recovery.
“All the negatives aside, it was just good to get back out on the mound again,” Warren said. “It just feels good to be competing again. That’s really all there is to it. When you sit out for 15 months, it just drives a guy nuts.”
The former Creighton starter, who still ranks among CU’s top five pitchers in career ERA, eventually transferred to Nebraska for the 2017 season and learned only in late July that the NCAA had granted him a sixth season of eligibility. He threw 64 pitches Monday, striking out six of the 20 batters he faced. The 23-year-old right-hander from Omaha Skutt also allowed six runs, but that number came in an exhibition format that called for innings to roll over based on pitch count and pick up where they left off.
Engelken, meanwhile, struck out seven of 20 hitters across 54 deliveries while walking four for the Whites. The junior from Overland Park, Kansas, returned to action only toward the end of summer ball in the Northwoods League but saw his best results against live hitters Monday with his fastball topping out in the low-to-mid 90s.
“He threw pretty hard today,” said catcher Jesse Wilkening, who struck out twice against his teammate. “Had a great, great curveball. He got me pretty well tonight a few times, and a lot of guys, too. He’s going to be a force to reckon with, I think.”
Both players said they have no preference on their 2018 roles, while Nebraska coach Darin Erstad added that the fall was important for each. The coach said Warren is still finding consistency — “He’s showing good, and he’s showing just OK” — while Engelken has “a monster arm and just has had a tough time repeating stuff.”
Sporting multi-hit evenings across the two games Monday for the Reds were Brison Cronenbold, Scott Schreiber, Alex Henwood and Wilkening. Freshman Kennet Sorenson and redshirt freshman Jeff Athey did the same for the Whites.
Game 1 featured 13 total runs on just seven hits while Wilkening highlighted the finale with three RBIs in a 2-for-3 effort.
Other notes from Nebraska’s final on-field action of 2017:
» Luis Alvarado struck out four of 20 batters and threw 55 pitches in the opener. The senior who turned down pro baseball last summer and is working toward being a starting pitcher in 2018 walked four and allowed two hits. Erstad said the Puerto Rico native would still hit some in the spring and “find his way into that lineup from time to time.”
» Henwood, a junior infielder from Wisconsin, led off for the Reds and went a combined 2 for 5 with a walk and a pair of steals. He showed off some serious speed in Game 1, scoring from first on a Ben Klenke double after having to wait to see if the ball would drop in left-center field. Henwood made five plate appearances all of last season.
» Sorenson, a true freshman from Georgia who played right field for the Whites on Monday, collected a combined three RBIs and smacked a double off Alvarado and a triple against Warren.
» With the Whites sporting an 11-player lineup, Athey was maybe the most productive 11-hole hitter ever as the redshirt freshman from Minnesota went 3 for 4 with two RBIs and a double.
» Junior Byron Hood and true freshman Jake Minnick both showed well in their shorter outings. Hood — who logged six total innings last year — retired eight of 10 White batters, including the first seven. The right-hander from Norris High School struck out three. Minnick, a righty from Castle Rock, Colorado, sat down the first seven hitters he saw before Wilkening reached for the Reds on a fielding error.
» True freshman Jaxon Hallmark was the lone Husker to homer during the Red-White series. He followed up his round-tripper Friday by going 1 for 4 with a walk. The 5-11, 170-pounder from Texas played a solid third base and showed glimpses of considerable opposite-field power with two deep flyouts to right.
» Erstad said Nebraska made it through the fall without serious injuries other than redshirt freshman pitcher Connor Curry, who will miss the 2018 season recovering from Tommy John surgery. As for the fall in general, the coach said he didn’t see much in the way of newcomers consistently proving they deserve to play right away next spring.
“I don’t think we saw anything really stand out that we were hoping for from some guys that are a little bit younger or trying different positions,” Erstad said. “So in that regard, I’m pleased with certain guys taking care of the baseball. I think what we’re going to put out there is going to take care of the baseball, but there’s some guys that need to get better.”
Red 9, White 4
Red……….211 32—9 5 0
White………..112 00—4 2 3
Red 8, White 6
Red……………142 01—8 7 0
White………….002 13—6 6 2