LINCOLN — Nate Fisher stood on crutches away from his teammates as they warmed up inside the Hawks Center. The senior pitcher wouldn’t be joining them today, not after recently spraining his ankle on a curb while getting out of his car.
That visual fit one of the main storylines of the next month — health — as Nebraska held its first practice Friday. The Huskers have officially begun sorting through their roster with the Feb. 15 season opener at UC-Riverside three weeks away.
Injuries ravaged Nebraska’s pitching last year. Now two potential weekend options are gearing back up in junior right-hander Chad Luensmann and sophomore lefty Connor Curry. Both sat out 2018 recovering from Tommy John surgery. Other key bullpen or midweek options working toward full strength include Reece Eddins, Robbie Palkert and Ethan Frazier.
Mix in the newcomers — freshman and Millard West graduate Colby Gomes has gotten some early mention and righty Bo Blessie out of Texas was selected in last summer’s major league draft — and the Huskers think they can be much better than last year’s 24-28 record.
“At no point did this team ever shut it down and stop playing; I like that,” coach Darin Erstad said. “We have a bunch of fighters. We’re healthy this year — it’s going to be fun to watch.”
Lineup regulars Luke Roskam and Angelo Altavilla agreed they won’t dwell on 2018. Yes, the defense took a step back as players shuffled between different positions. Yes, their best run producers by a mile — Scott Schreiber and Jesse Wilkening — are now playing pro ball.
Altavilla, who slogged through a .228 batting average last year after hitting .316 as a sophomore, said he found some life in the offseason playing summer ball in Waterloo, Iowa. This team feels revitalized, too.
“I don’t know if guys are going to be hitting 19 home runs, 18 home runs like Scott did,” Altavilla said. “But we’re going to battle, and I think the pitching’s going to help a lot. But it’s going to be a really good year.”
Roskam, who said he’ll focus on catching this spring after balancing those duties with corner infield spots last season, pointed to the standard of past Nebraska teams. Before missing the Big Ten tournament for the first time last year under Erstad, the program had reached the NCAA tournament three times in a four-year span. They were Big Ten regular-season champs in 2017.
“Even though we’re inside (today), it really doesn’t matter,” Roskam said. “It’s just fun to be a group working on stuff, working toward the goal of making it to regionals again and getting back to where we were.”
Said Erstad: “You say the same thing every year. But I’d be lying to say that these guys aren’t ticked off and ready to get back on the field and get going.”
A formidable nonconference schedule greets Nebraska. Four games against College World Series champion Oregon State next month in Arizona. Contests with fellow CWS qualifiers Texas Tech and Mississippi State after that. Home series with recent powers Baylor and Arizona State.
The Huskers won’t be full strength right away, Erstad said. Many pitchers still recovering will be once-a-week options, at least early on. Nebraska will stretch out seven or eight pitchers as potential starters with the aim of filling innings.
Luensmann, for example, is “a caged animal ready to be released,” Erstad said. But opening weekend isn’t a deadline for everyone as NU tries to finish navigating a relatively healthy offseason.
“In a decent amount of time we’ll have everybody back,” Erstad said. “It’ll be fun.”