LINCOLN — Nebraska’s already-depleted bullpen took another crushing blow this week with news that right-hander Robbie Palkert will undergo Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery and miss the rest of the season.
Coach Darin Erstad announced the development before Tuesday’s practice inside the Hawks Center as the Huskers (3-1) prepare to face No. 2 Oregon State (3-0) and Utah (0-3) twice each beginning Thursday at the Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge in Surprise, Arizona.
“He ended up feeling tightness in his forearm that (Sunday) night and got tests done,” Erstad said. “He’s going to have Tommy John, so he’s out for the year.”
Palkert pitched twice last weekend in Tempe, Arizona, throwing three scoreless innings on 28 pitches for a Friday save against UC Riverside and another 1⅔ clean frames on 31 pitches Sunday to secure the win against Washington State.
The junior from Golden Valley, Minnesota, was a lead contributor in the bullpen the last two years. He posted a 2.88 ERA in 16 appearances in 2016 and had a 2.61 mark in 24 outings last year.
The injury leaves Nebraska five relief arms short of full strength. Redshirt freshman lefty Connor Curry and junior righty Chad Luensmann are already Tommy John victims from injuries suffered in the offseason. Junior righty Reece Eddins underwent the same procedure last season after seven appearances in 2017 and is expected to return at some point during Big Ten play.
Classmate Zack Engelken is “close” to returning after missing all of last spring recovering from shoulder surgery. Erstad said the hard-throwing righty is ideally a midweek starter for the Huskers but has to rebuild his stamina . He will travel to Arizona this weekend after throwing live at Tuesday’s practice.
“Can’t do it last second and change air flights anymore, so he’s coming regardless,” Erstad said of Engelken. “He’s either gonna have a great vacation or he’s gonna hopefully help us. One of the two.”
Others on Nebraska’s staff have serious injury experience as well. Junior right-hander Ethan Frazier is back after a lat muscle in his back separated from the bone in last year’s Big Ten tournament. Redshirt freshman Paul Tillotson had his debut campaign cut short after undergoing shoulder surgery a year ago. Starter Matt Warren spent last season sitting out under NCAA transfer rules while also healing from his own Tommy John procedure.
Junior lefty Nate Fisher and senior righty Jake Hohensee both missed 2016 with Tommy John operations. Jake McSteen, a junior lefty, sat out most of 2015 from major shoulder surgery.
Other notes from Tuesday’s practice:
» A media member dared to ask Erstad about a specific opponent — usually a fruitless exercise — and the NU coach followed form when questioned about meeting Oregon State, which went 56-6 last year.
“I couldn’t care less who we’re playing,” Erstad said. “We’re going to go out and play our game. Are they good? Of course they’re good. So is Utah. You start letting those external things dictate how you’re going to get up for a game, that’s just not how you get ready to play.”
» Nebraska scored 22 runs in the first four games in Arizona, but Erstad said the total could have been much higher given the squad was 8 for 48 (.167) with runners in scoring position. Still, he added, the Huskers found a way on base 27 times by walks and hit batsmen — sustainable routes to first base — while striking out just 30 times.
“We put ourselves in position to score some runs,” Erstad said. “Now did we get the hits with runners in scoring position? We didn’t. But that’s awesome because that stuff evens itself out over time. But we had plenty of opportunities to do that.”
» Erstad said people should “pump the brakes” on the Jesse Wilkening hype after the junior catcher from Cedar Lake, Indiana, went 6 for 14 (.429) with eight RBIs last weekend. He said Wilkening is “maturing” as a hitter but needs to continue putting together quality at-bats.
» Nebraska isn’t ready to release its starting rotation for the weekend, Erstad said.
» Last Friday’s starter, senior Luis Alvarado, didn’t hit at all in the four-game opening series. Erstad said “we’ll just see how it goes” in regard to lineup appearances by the Puerto Rico native .
“He took (batting practice) on Sunday and felt great, but I think it’s safe to say right now with the way that our pitching is that we don’t need him going down,” Erstad said. “So we’ve got to be smart with it and make sure he’s not pulling a rib-cage muscle or something swinging. We’re just going to be smart about it.”
» Tickets for the Big Ten baseball tournament go on sale to the general public at 10 a.m. Friday. The tournament runs May 23-27 at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha.