From left: Senior Michael Pritchard, juniors Aaron Brummer and Pat Kelly.
By Randy York
Don’t look now, but as the sun returns to Lincoln, Nebraska opens its baseball season Friday. First pitch against Pacific is 1 p.m. CST. The Huskers’ first game of Saturday afternoon’s doubleheader in Tempe, Ariz., begins at noon and the opponent is Oregon State. Want to know how monumental that challenge is? ESPN ranks the Beavers first in its preseason poll and Baseball America second. Three other legitimate polls – USA Today/Coaches, the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association and Collegiate Baseball – rank Oregon State third in their respective preseason polls.
With so much pressure so early in the season, it’s time to meet Coach Darin Erstad’s Husker team that, by all accounts, appears locked and loaded to breathe down Indiana’s neck and push the defending Big Ten Conference champion Hoosiers to the finish line, and that will be no easy task. Indiana, in fact, has earned preseason ratings of 3, 4, 7, 7 and 11 in the same polls that put Oregon State on the hot seat.
Mixing Prominent Recruits with Proven Veterans
Erstad has spoken volumes about the balance of his team, its hybrid offense and ability to drive the baseball, yet still move forward with a small-ball mentality. He’s analyzed the mix of experience on his team and how he intends to break in prospects from a nationally prominent recruiting class slowly. Everything Erstad says points to his main goal – having his guys be able to look in the mirror and say they have no regrets after emptying their tanks on and off the field.
Every Husker player, including non-starters, will be expected to be lead, but we will focus first on the three players that each coach among the top six Big Ten teams chose to acknowledge. Consider it baseball’s version of football’s well-known “players to watch list”. The envelope, please…Nebraska’s preseason players to watch are:
Michael Pritchard, a senior from Omaha, Nebraska.
Aaron Bummer, a junior from Peoria, Arizona.
Pat Kelly, a junior from Red Wing, Minnesota.
In a nutshell, Pritchard is a three-year letterwinner who’s earned a third-team All-America honor and first-team and second-team All-Big Ten accolades. Bummer has earned two letters and Academic All-Big Ten status after the New York Yankees drafted him in the 31st round three years ago. Kelly also has earned two letters, earned second-team and then first-team All-Big Ten honors, not to mention Freshman All-America awards from four different national organizations.
If Pritchard doesn’t start in the outfield, he’s a good bet to be the Huskers’ designated hitter. The left-fielder’s career batting average as a Husker is .351.
Bummer is on a roll with the way he finished his collegiate season early last summer and then dominating the Cape Cod League later to earn the start on the mound in the prestigious league’s all-star game. Bummer has increased his velocity, made some other significant changes and figures to be a top-line starter in an experienced Husker rotation.
Beginning his third-year as Nebraska’s starting second-baseman, Kelly will be asked to drive in more runs in his first year in the cleanup spot. He’s a bit of a hitting machine and is accepting his more advanced role, leading the Huskers in RBIs during fall camp.
It’s Time to Convert Preparation to Performance
In press conferences, Erstad has expressed that the 2014 Huskers are in position to succeed. “I like their preparation up to this point,” he said. “It’s going to come down to consistency. Are we going to lay it on the line from the get-go every game and when that crunch time comes in the seventh inning? Belief and confidence are catchy words, but we have to make sure we go out there and play our game. That’s what I want to see out of this group. They’ve put themselves in position to do that.”
One thing is certain. Erstad loves to play the best because it’s the only way he believes you can become the best. Nebraska’s fiercely competitive head coach not only agreed to play Oregon State this Saturday in Tempe, but play the Beavers again the following Friday in Surprise, Ariz., as part of a three-game weekend Feb. 21-23. Besides Pacific Friday and Oregon State Saturday this week, the Huskers will play Gonzaga twice in Tempe – at 4 p.m. Saturday and at 1 p.m. Sunday.
Keep your eyes on Huskers.com and your ears on the Huskers Sports Network IMG broadcasts. Playing Oregon State twice in February will give Erstad the benchmark he needs to help Nebraska qualify for its first NCAA regional in six years. Erstad has a plan, and he expects his team to learn and to prosper, whether they win or lose coming out of the gate.
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