The Nebraska baseball team steps up to the plate for the 2019 season after an injury-plagued and inconsistent 2018.
Last year, Nebraska scuffled to a 24-28 record, including an 8-14 mark in the Big Ten, placing them 10th in the conference. The biggest problem Nebraska faced was run prevention from pitchers and fielders.
Due to injuries, head coach Darin Erstad and pitching coach Ted Silva were forced to rely on young pitchers or pitchers being forced into new roles. Nebraska’s pitching staff had a 5.70 earned run average, 231st out of 297 Division I teams. The lowest ERA among starters belonged to junior Matt Waldron, who finished the season with a 4.26 ERA.
Last season’s pitching injuries decimated the staff. Juniors Chad Luensmann and Robbie Palkert and sophomore Connor Curry, among others, missed time with injuries. Their three injuries were all season-ending.
Curry did not get a chance to make an impact during his freshman year as he was injured for the duration of the season. Luensmann missed his entire sophomore year due to Tommy John surgery, while Palkert pitched in two early games before being shelved by the same procedure.
Luensmann’s return is particularly exciting. He was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2016, sporting a sterling 1.18 ERA in 38 innings, spreading eight earned runs through 28 appearances. The 6-foot-4 right-hander struck out 23 batters and recorded 13 saves that year.
While he has pitched entirely out of the bullpen in college, Erstad said on Sports Nightly he believes that as Luensmann continues to recover arm strength and stamina, his arm could be stretched out for multiple innings, potentially as a weekend starter.
Defense was also an issue for Nebraska last season, as the team fielded its worst percentage in Erstad’s seven years with the Huskers. The team finished the year with only a 96.9 fielding percentage and 60 errors. Those errors led to 45 unearned runs the offense was forced to try and make up for.
Bats were solid for Nebraska a year ago. The team scored 6.5 runs per game, ranking 53rd in the country and second in the conference behind only conference champion Minnesota. As a unit, the Huskers hit .274 and got on base at a .371 clip, marks well above the national averages last season.
Moving into 2019, Nebraska will miss two of its biggest bats, Scott Schreiber and Jesse Wilkening. The duo combined for 153 hits, 27 doubles and 27 home runs. Schreiber and Wilkening were the only two regular starters with a slugging percentage over .580. They combined to tally 104 RBI, nearly a third of Nebraska’s 337 runs scored last year.
Plenty of pieces return for the Nebraska offense, including senior Angelo Altavilla, juniors Luke Roskam and Mojo Hagge and sophomores Jaxon Hallmark and Gunner Hellstrom.
Altavilla is a prime candidate for a bounce-back season. As a sophomore, he was named third-team all-Big Ten after hitting .316 with an on-base percentage of .406 and driving in 39 runs. He struggled at the plate as a junior due to abandoning his approach at the plate. Erstad noted on Sports Nightly that Altavilla was swinging for the fences too often in his draft year, trying to do too much at the plate instead of sticking with the approach that brought him success. Altavilla mustered a .228 batting average and collected only nine extra-base hits.
The continued developments of Roskam and Hagge will also be key for Nebraska. Roskam, who will likely return to catcher instead of third base, provided a power bat in the middle of the lineup for two years, hitting four home runs and driving in 20 runs as a freshman, and blasting five homers with 46 RBI as a sophomore. The issue for Roskam is making contact, as he struck out 47 times his freshman year and 54 times last year.
Hagge looks to continue to be a tough out at the top of the Husker lineup. He hit .275 or better the last two years, and the Omaha native’s OBP increased from .353 as a freshman to .369 as a sophomore. He has also found other ways to get on base, drawing 47 walks and six hit by pitches across two seasons. On Sports Nightly, Erstad said Hagge’s arm is sore, so he will likely be in the lineup as the designated hitter early in the season.
Hallmark and Hellstrom both contributed during their first year at Nebraska. Hallmark played in 50 of 52 possible games, starting each one he played. He did not lock down a consistent starting position, instead playing both infield and outfield depending on the day.
He held his own at the dish, too, batting .261 and drawing 33 walks, an impressive total for a freshman and the second most on the team. His Achilles’ heel was striking out, as he was retired 57 times without putting the ball in play.
Hellstrom saw limited action by virtue of backing up Wilkening, playing in only half of Nebraska’s games and making 19 starts. He made the most of his few at bats, hitting .310 — with an OBP of .381 — for the year with 13 RBI. Arguably more impressive was his defense, as he ended the year with a .992 fielding percentage, a great mark for any catcher, especially for a freshman.
A solid recruiting class that ranked 36th nationally could provide more players that make an immediate impact for Nebraska. One player to watch is Spencer Schwellenbach, who was drafted in the 34th round of the MLB Draft last June. He offered a glimpse at his potential in smoking two home runs in Nebraska’s Red-White scrimmage series last fall.
Other names that coaches have floated as challengers for playing time as freshmen are Bo Blessie, a 36th-round draft pick, and Nebraska prep standouts Colby Gomes, Shay Schanaman, Kyle Perry and Drew Gilin.
Nebraska’s schedule presents plenty of opportunities to boost its RPI and gain quality wins. Headlining the list of non-conference foes is Oregon State, last year’s national champion, led by catcher Adley Rutschman, a consensus top-5 draft pick in 2019.
Nebraska will also play three games against Creighton, two games against Kansas State and will face Arizona State in a three-game series in May. The Frisco Classic in Frisco, Texas features games against Texas Tech, Mississippi State and Sam Houston State. While SHSU is likely the name with the least recognition, the Bearkats are perennial Southland Conference and NCAA Regional contenders.
Nebraska opens its season on Friday, Feb. 15 in Riverside, California, facing off with UC-Riverside in a four-game series held Friday through Sunday.