Published Wednesday, February 12, 2014 at 10:49 pm / Updated at 8:21 pm
baseball
NU may have gained from title game defeat

LINCOLN — Nebraska's players don't want to again spend a full season trying to uncover the mindset that allows them to display their true potential.

They found the blueprint at the Big Ten tournament last year, when the Huskers won three games in two days to emerge out of the losers bracket and earn a title game shot against Indiana.

They lost the final in the bottom of the ninth. And that still stings.

But as the disappointment subsided over the past eight months, the NU players began pointing to that weekend in Minneapolis as a potential turning point for their rebuilding program.

They finally had the on-field, firsthand example of what happens when they shake off the pressure, ignore the self-doubts and embrace the big moment — as if it were any other day.

Now they just have to replicate it, starting Friday in Tempe, Ariz. Nebraska opens its season against Pacific, and the players don't expect to be questioning their mental makeup afterward.

“Something changed in the Big Ten tournament,” second baseman Pat Kelly said. “The feeling around the guys was, let's just go out and play. Whatever happens, happens.

“That's the way we're going to play this year. Go out there and have fun.”

Just not too much fun. Winning, after all, does require hard work and focus.

But that can be overdone, too, if you try too hard. And the inevitable mistake happens, shattering your confidence and consuming your thoughts. Cue the snowball.

That self-destructive mentality plagued Nebraska last year, especially in crucial moments.

The Huskers were 8-18 in games decided by one or two runs. They lost six times in an opponent's last at-bat. In 32 games, the score was within a two-run margin after the sixth inning — and NU won 13 of those.

Coach Darin Erstad has talked about it plenty with his team this offseason.

“When crunch time comes in the seventh inning, are we going to be able to handle our breathing, and handle our (emotions) — do we believe? Our confidence? All those catchy words,” Erstad said. “And make sure that we go out there and continue to play our game.”

That could be the key to 2014 for Nebraska, which returns its top three starting pitchers and is bolstered by a freshman class ranked as high as No. 11 nationally.

But talent's not always been the issue for NU, according to senior outfielder Michael Pritchard.

“It just had to do with our attitudes toward playing the game,” he said.

The Huskers haven't reached an NCAA regional since 2008. A couple more regular season wins last year likely would have clinched a berth for them. Of course, a victory in the Big Ten title game last May would have earned Nebraska an automatic bid.

Erstad played the footage of Indiana dog-piling and celebrating that championship when he gathered the Huskers for their first meeting of the fall.

Just as a reminder — though his players didn't need it.

“It's a bad feeling, and it's almost indescribable, how it feels when something that you want so bad is just literally ripped away from you,” Pritchard said. “I think that's good, though, to feel that.”

And maybe just as beneficial, even eight months later with a team full of newcomers, is what happened before the devastating finale.

The Huskers learned something about themselves, and they hope it's applicable this year.

“They played with this freeness that I don't think they had experienced, and they did it under some pressure-packed situations,” Erstad said. “They were having fun in a pressure situation, and when you feel that and you've been through that … you can't wait for that situation again.”

* * *

INFIELD

Top returner: Pat Kelly, Jr., 2B. Had more hits (85) than any other Husker last year. He'll start the season batting fourth after leading the team in RBIs during fall practice.

Newcomer to know: Steven Reveles Jr., SS. Batted .305 and stole 30 bases for Santa Barbara (Calif.) Community College in 2013. He'll start at shortstop with sophomore Jake Placzek backing him up.

Other projected starters: Austin Christensen, So., 1B; Blake Headley, Jr., 3B; Tanner Lubach, Jr., C

Key question: Is there enough depth at catcher behind Lubach? An injury ended Corey Stringer's career, Beau Fandel's banged up now as well and Taylor Fish hit .219 in 16 games last season.

OUTFIELD

Top returner: Michael Pritchard, Sr., LF. Batting .351 for his career. He'll be the designated hitter if he doesn't beat out junior college transfer Christian Cox in left.

Newcomer to know: Ryan Boldt, Fr., CF. Ranked as the second-best freshman nationally, according to Baseball America. He's healthy after recovering from a knee injury.

Other projected starters: Austin Darby, Jr., RF

Key question: Will a right-handed batter emerge as a reliable reserve in the outfield? NU's top four options are all lefty swingers, so senior Ty Kildow and freshman Quinn McGill are the two to watch.

STARTING PITCHING

Top returner: Aaron Bummer, Jr., LHP. Went 5-2 with a 1.41 ERA in seven Cape Cod League starts.

Newcomer to know: Chance Sinclair, Jr., RHP. The Huskers' fourth starter on opening weekend. He recorded a program-best career ERA of 1.49 at Neosho County (Kan.) Community College.

Other projected starters: Kyle Kubat, Jr., LHP; Christian DeLeon, Sr., RHP

Key question: Can the top arms stay healthy? Bummer, Kubat and DeLeon were all starters last year, but they were in the rotation together for only about a month.

BULLPEN

Top returner: Josh Roeder, Jr., RHP. Opponents hit just .209 against him last year, and he struck out 29 in 31 innings. He'll be the closer.

Newcomer to know: Bob Greco, Sr., RHP. A two-time honorable mention NAIA All-American at Bellevue University and a former standout at Papillion-La Vista South.

Other projected contributors: Luke Bublitz, Sr., RHP; Jeff Chesnut, So., RHP; Zach Hirsch, Sr., LHP; Derek Burkamper, Fr., RHP; Max Knutson, Fr., LHP

Key question: Are the relievers more mentally ready for the pressure-filled moments? The NU bullpen was 8-8 with a 5.09 ERA against conference opponents last year. Improvement is needed.

Contact the writer: Jon Nyatawa

jon.nyatawa@owh.com    |   402-473-9585    |  

Jon Nyatawa has covered local sports, primarily Nebraska football and baseball, for The Omaha World-Herald since 2008.

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