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Huskers happy to be home at Haymarket Park, but would be happier with wins

Huskers happy to be home at Haymarket Park, but would be happier with wins

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LINCOLN — The weather is good. Suitcases are put away. A parade of games is coming.

No time like the present for the Nebraska baseball team to get rolling.

Despite losing seven of nine contests on the road to start the season, the Huskers can make up ground quickly as they open the home portion of their schedule Friday with a four-game set against Ivy League school Columbia. While the weekend action against a team that went 19-23 last year won’t boost their RPI, it could provide plenty of positive reinforcement after an uneven February.

“It’s been tough for us to kind of get all three phases of the game together,” NU reliever Paul Tillotson said. “Moving forward and coming back home, it’s going to be a big statement for us to get all three of those together for everybody here. So I think that’s what we’re looking forward to the most.”

The notion that Nebraska (2-7) is in for a tough spring because of its slow start is premature. In its eight years in the Big Ten, the team made its Haymarket Park debut three times with a losing record and made the NCAA tournament twice — it was 3-6 in both 2016 and 2017 and still qualified. In 2013, when Will Bolt was in Lincoln as an assistant, the squad began 0-7 away from home and finished 29-30, narrowly missing an at-large bid only because NCAA rules didn’t allow schools with sub-.500 records to advance.

Bolt, now the head coach, said just a couple plays could have swung three more wins toward Nebraska in a challenging February that included series at recent regional qualifiers Baylor and Arizona State. They can build on last Sunday, when they rallied from down five runs to the 12th-ranked Sun Devils for an 18-10 triumph.

“I want to start becoming the team we need to become right now,” Bolt said. “… If you just show up and have kind of the similar mindset every day, then you’re going to have a shot to stack some wins together.”

Poor weather last season forced a canceled series, two scuttled midweek games and the relocation of the Baylor series to push Nebraska’s home opener to March 19, its latest in 41 years. There have been no such complications this week other than gale-force winds Thursday that had Bolt anxious to put the Huskers through pop-up communication drills.

The schedule also lines up for NU to gain momentum in 24 games at its own 19-year-old ballpark. Big Red hosts just one team with a winning record — Ohio State in May — outside of single April games against in-state schools Creighton and UNO. Contrast that with the travel slate, which still includes eight meetings with returning postseason qualifiers.

“Granted, we had a slow start,” freshman infielder Leighton Banjoff said. “But nothing changes. The mindset’s all the same. We gotta go out there and compete and just play the best baseball that we can, day in and day out.”

The built-in advantages of home won’t hurt either. Bolt said that while the Huskers probably played in front of more of their own fans on the road than their opponents did, the local crowds make even more of a difference. After three weeks of changing time zones and hotel beds, their own third-base dugout looks pretty good.

But the first-year coach added that a familiar venue is just one factor in the weekend. Can NU throw strikes on the mound and keep from hurting itself defensively? If so, the weather won’t be the only thing heating up soon.

“We can’t overlook anybody,” Bolt said. “We can’t come to the park thinking we’re going to be owed a win. You gotta show up and earn it.”​

Scouting Nebraska (2-7): While Nebraska has logged five straight error-free games and been competitive offensively, pitching remains in flux. It begins with the Friday starting role, vacated by senior lefty Gareth Stroh for a second straight weekend as he deals with elbow discomfort. He hasn’t picked up a baseball since his bullpen session last week. Coach Will Bolt said there’s no definitive timetable for his return and that NU wants to get the Gibbon native through the early portion of the season. But, he added, “it’s a little bit more than just kind of your general discomfort.” ... Perry, a sophomore Millard South grad, will make his eighth start in Stroh’s stead. He logged 4 2/3 perfect innings in a pair of relief appearances before Arizona State tagged him for five earned runs in one frame Sunday. Bolt said the lefty – who was recovering from injury in the offseason – probably would have been a starter from the beginning of the year if the new staff had seen him throw much previously. Junior righty Max Schreiber started for Nebraska last Friday, but coaches prefer him in a twice-a-weekend relief role. ... Nebraska’s bullpen has been a disaster to start the season and recorded an earned-run average of 16.34 against Arizona State. The team is 1-6 when scoring first after going 20-6 in such situations last year. ... Freshman infielder Leighton Banjoff is leading Husker regulars with a .370 batting average coming off his Big Ten freshman of the week honor. Outfielder Aaron Palensky (.364) and third baseman Cam Chick (.317) are also above .300. Shortstop Spencer Schwellenbach (.289) has been swinging well, too, despite some poor batted-ball luck.

Scouting Columbia (0-4): The Lions were outscored 38-10 in a four-game sweep against Fresno State to open their season last weekend. The Ivy League team began 0-8 in 2019, 0-6 in 2018 and 0-10 in 2017 while playing challenging road schedules. Baseball America projects it to finish third in its eight-team conference after going 19-23 a season ago. ... Senior outfielder Julian Bury is a .500 hitter in the early going with a home run, while junior infielder Josh Nicoloff (.444) is the only other regular hitting above .280. The majority of its lineup is back from a 2019 group that averaged 5.5 runs per game (187th nationally). ... Columbia pitching struggled last year with an ERA of 5.49 (203rd nationally) and is even lighter on experience this spring. Its announced rotation has a combined nine career starts and an 8.25 ERA in 67 2/3 innings.

Dugout chatter: Nebraska will play 10 games in the next 10 days after logging nine in the first three weeks. ... Haymarket Park is debuting a new video board in right field. ... Columbia University is based in New York City. Established in 1754, it is the fifth-oldest institution of higher learning in the U.S. ... Weather forecasts call for sunny and windy conditions this weekend. Friday’s high is 57 degrees while Saturday and Sunday will top out around 70.

The past 10 years of Nebraska baseball

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