By Randy York
If this is Wednesday, The Energy Bus must be back in Lincoln from East Lansing, so now’s the perfect time to tell Nebraska baseball fans why it’s important to show up in droves at Hawks Field at 6:35 p.m. Thursday and Friday and at 1:05 p.m. Saturday. Illinois is coming to town to play the Huskers and both teams have a chance to tie for the Big Ten Conference regular-season championship. For that to happen, however, Nebraska (35-17 overall and 16-5 in the Big Ten) or Illinois (30-17 and also 16-5) would have to sweep the series and hope Indiana (36-12, 19-2) loses its last three games. The Huskers have won nine of their last 10 games and Illinois has won eight of its last 10. Both teams have won seven consecutive conference games. With two hot teams squaring off, The N-Sider sees three interesting things on the line:
1) Both teams can end up no worse than the No. 3 seed for the Big Ten Tournament that starts next Wednesday at Omaha’s TD Ameritrade Park, so, in all likelihood, whichever team takes two in Lincoln will be the No. 2 Big Ten seed.
2) Three years ago, Darin Erstad, above, was wearing a tie and a smile to the press conference that announced the Husker legend as head baseball coach. Well, guess what? If the Huskers beat the Illini Thursday night, Erstad will get his 100th career win. Time flies.
3) Speaking of meaningful milestones, focus on Michael Pritchard’s first at-bat Thursday night. If Pritchard, the 2014 Sporting News Preseason All-American whose classic swing graces the very top of this column, gets a hit, it will be his 240th career hit as a Husker. That would tie the senior outfielder with Alex Gordon for 11th place on the all-time chart.
Be there to watch Pritchard extend his legacy. The hitting machine has shaken off a 16-game, 9-for-60 slump and raised his average 56 points to .317 over the past 20 games. He’s hitting .400 during his 32-for-80 stretch with eight multi-hit games. Remember his career high 5-for-5 night against Kansas State on April 15th? Pritchard seems poised to get on a roll. Remember, too, that he’s the first Husker in history to put together two separate 20-game hitting streaks.
There’s one more interesting fact to draw fans to a Thursday night series opener to watch an elite athlete pursue history on an elite field. One Husker baseball player will be announced as Nebraska’s 2014 Lifter of the Year. Strength is a big part of baseball, and this is an honor that baseball teammates treasure. In my mind, that makes the winner worthy of a standing ovation.
Emily Wong Will Throw Out Friday Night’s First Pitch
Strength, of course, can come in small packages, so make sure you arrive early for Friday night’s second game of the series. Emily Wong, above, will throw out the first pitch. Nebraska’s 2014 Female Student-Athlete of the Year won her sport’s highest individual honor at the NCAA Championships in Birmingham, Ala. Therefore, she also deserves a standing O whether that opening pitch is a strike or not. It would be interesting to see part of her floor exercise routine as she exits the mound, but don’t count on it. She’s all about her teammates, and that’s another reason why Emily deserves to be an NCAA Top Ten Award Winner by the end of the year.
That takes us to the final game of the series on Saturday afternoon. With Christian DeLeon out of the weekend rotation for a third consecutive week, Kyle Kubat will be the man on the mound after Chance Sinclair makes his 14th start Thursday and Aaron Bummer is scheduled to start Friday. Saturday’s celebrity first pitch will come from someone who actually played small college baseball in Florida. Sometimes, he goes sleeveless, so be prepared to stand up and cheer when he’s introduced before the regular-season finale that will pave the way to next week’s Big Ten Tournament action inside the home of the College World Series.
Final Home Stand for Huskers’ Seven Seniors
Saturday should draw a full house or a crowd close to one because the Huskers will honor seven seniors. Here’s a tidbit or two you might not know about each senior who will be introduced and acknowledged:
Luke Bublitz– Luke was one of Colorado’s top two-sport performers in Westminster. An outstanding quarterback and accomplished pitcher, he earned four letters and could become a three-time Academic All-Big Ten selection. He also served on Nebraska’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.
Christian DeLeon– Christian is a fascinating story, and I enjoyed writing this column on him. What I didn’t include was his playing shortstop for the Lamar Little League team out of Richmond, Texas, that lost the Little League World Series Championship game to a team from Thousand Oaks, Calif., in 2004.
Bob Greco– Bob transferred to Nebraska after spending four seasons at Bellevue (Neb.) University, where he was a two-time NAIA Honorable Mention All-American. Competing at Nebraska has been productive because he’s been able to work on his master’s degree in Business Administration.
Zach Hirsch– Talk about productive. Zach, the senior left-handed pitcher from St. Charles, Ill., will be competing against his home state after graduating in May of 2013. A finance major, he leads the Husker staff with 24 appearances and has a 4-1 record and team-leading 1.40 ERA. Opponents have hit only .191 in the 38.2 innings he’s pitched. In 2008, his Downers Grove team played in the Connie Mack World Series. A year later, he was featured on NBC’s Today Show because of his close friendship with Graham Jackson, a St. Charles North High School student with Asperger’s Syndrome. Talk about a well-grounded student-athlete. Hirsch also has earned four letters and get this – he was First-Team Academic All-Big 12 in 2011 and Academic All-Big Ten in 2012 and 2013…quite a resume’.
Ty Kildow – Another versatile athlete who was a three-time first-team Super State outfielder in baseball and a first-team Super-State and first-team All-Nebraska receiver in football. He was the Omaha World-Herald offensive captain. After a redshirt season at running back and reserve status as a Husker receiver, Ty switched to Nebraska baseball and has earned three letters, back-to-back Academic All-Big Ten honors and Big Ten Distinguished Scholar status. A Biological Sciences major, Ty is a model student-athlete.
Tyler King – Believe it or not, we have another senior four-year letterwinner and a two-time Academic All-Big Ten honoree in seek of a third. A left-handed pitcher from Republic, Mo., Tyler was a first-team all-state selection who pitched for the Midwest Nationals in the summer of 2009, going 8-0 with a 1.83 ERA. A Nutrition Science major, he also played football and basketball in high school.
Michael Pritchard – Michael, above, focused strictly on baseball in high school, and his statistics reflect his intense concentration. At Creighton Prep High School, he was first-team all-state in both Nebraska metropolitan newspapers. In those two seasons, he hit .428 with 15 home runs and 80 RBIs. As a junior, 22 extra-base hits helped him post a slugging percentage of .860. On a state runner-up team, he hit .563 with four doubles, a triple, a grand slam and 10 RBIs in the state tournament. With four hits in his last regular-season home series, Pritchard would pass Mark Kister (1992-95) for 10th place on Nebraska’s all-time career hits chart. Who knows? With Pritchard, that could happen in the first game of the series.
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