Crimson Quarry spoke with Keith Yaple of Corn Nation to discuss the current state of Nebraska baseball, the Huskers’ outlook for the rest of the 2017 season, and to preview this weekend’s series in Bloomington.
Crimson Quarry: In the aughts of this century, Nebraska was one of the best and most consistent baseball programs in the country. They qualified for eight of the 10 NCAA Tournaments, won four regionals, and went to the College World Series three times. But the end of the Huskers’ time in the Big 12 got ugly and from 2009-2013, the club missed five consecutive NCAA Tournaments. I’m curious, now five-plus seasons into the Darin Erstad era, how Huskers fans feel about the state of the program, which, under Erstad, has gone 188-129, 72-47 in the Big Ten, and has finished in the conference 4th, 3rd, 2nd, 8th, and 2nd, respectively.
Keith Yaple: Last year big things were expected from Ryan Boldt, a 2nd round MLB draft pick who was arguably I say the greatest disappointment in recent Nebraska Baseball history. With a 2 and done showing in the conference tournament, most fans expected to miss the NCAA Tournament, so it was a surprise when Nebraska made the tournament. It was was not a surprise to see the Huskers move to 2 and done in the tournament as the best hitter on the team, Scott Schreiber had an injury that took him out of the final several games for the Huskers. As far as how fans feel about Erstad his seat is lukewarm I would say, people are unhappy about this years start, but much of that is probably misplaced as Nebraska has scheduled difficult teams so far. The SOS ranking does not look great, but when Nebraska has played eight neutral site games, it is hard to judge the SOS.
CQ: This year’s team has, perhaps, the conference’s best win, a 1-0 victory over Arizona. But at just 12-10, it seems from afar to have been a lackluster non-conference season for the Huskers. Fill us in. What was the story of the non-conference for Nebraska
KY: You can go game by game and without a doubt, there have been some wins left of the table. Nebraska should have swept there California spring break trip, but a blowup from Chad Luensmann and poor execution in a game against Cal Poly cost them. The series that left many scratching their head was the home series against Western Carolina who is not exactly lighting it up. Nebraska dropped two of three and the seat under Erstad and pitching coach Ted Silva got a little hotter.
The games themselves have been low scoring, as Nebraska has been brutal on offensive execution with usual cleanup hitter Ben Miller hitting below the Mendoza line at .155. Infielders Jake Schleppenbach and Alex Raburn have also hit below the .200 mark and continue to show signs of pressing at the plate. Schleppenbach was a .300 hitter as a Sophomore but has really slumped the last two seasons.
CQ: I think going into every season, given the history of the program, we all expect Nebraska to contend for the Big Ten regular season championship and to be a tough out in the conference tournament. This season, the league seems to have a handful of good teams that can contend for the regular season title and the 1-seed, several teams that are just terrible. And when every team doesn’t play every other team, that leaves some very unbalanced scheduling. Nebraska seems to have drawn the short end of the stick. They play Indiana, Maryland, Iowa, Minnesota, and Michigan State, all of whom you would have to consider contenders at this juncture. And of their other three series, two are on the road. How do you see Nebraska navigating this conference schedule and, ultimately, where do you think they end up in the standings?
KY: Nebraska did get the good end of the stick last season, playing Rutgers, Purdue, Northwestern, and Penn State. The schedule this year will be a challenge without a doubt, but that is a good thing. Playing at Indiana and Minnesota will both bring their challenges, but road series against Ohio State and Penn State will have their challenges as well. Speaking of Penn State, they drew the short straw, facing Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, and Indiana in road series this season. If Nebraska were to end up in the 15-9 range in the Big Ten I think some people would be happy and others would be disappointed, but that is a good target. Getting to 15 wins could be easier than expected due to how some teams look great from playing weak out of conference schedules. Out of teams with a top 100 strength of schedule, Indiana has played two top 50 non conference RPI opponents, Iowa has played three, Rutgers has played six, Illinois has played two, and Nebraska has played five.
CQ: Alright, on to this weekend. I think anyone who knows college baseball knows that Jake Meyers is an absolute freak. He’s something of a renaissance man for the Huskers. He’s hitting .288 with seven RBIs right now and, on the mound, has a 2.01 ERA and a 4-1 record in his five starts. For those readers of ours who don’t know a lot about Nebraska, how important is Meyers to the Huskers’ chances for success on any given weekend.
KY: Meyers is a feel pitcher. He is not going to overpower you and he is not going to hit three home runs in a game with his bat. He will be annoying on the base paths though, stealing and taking an extra bag whenever possible. He is a scrappy junk yard dog who Erstad found up in Omaha at Westside High School. He will sit only in the upper 80's with his fastball but has a big loopy curve that can make people look foolish. He knows how to locate and how to pitch.
At the plate, Meyers is a gap hitter with a good solid understanding that his speed causes problems. He will look to drive balls into the gaps when the count is in his favor, but when behind he can battle and has an outstanding feel for the strikezone. The average Meyer's at bat usually has at least three foul balls and ends with a chopping groundball hit somewhere up the middle of the diamond.
CQ: Indiana has been mashing and hanging a lot of crooked numbers lately. In their last 10 games (of which they have won nine), the Hoosiers have scored 79 runs (7.9 per game) and have hung 10 or more four times. If on Sunday night, Nebraska has held this offense in check, who are the Huskers that made it happen?
KY: Northwestern does have an ERA of 6.24, so that weekend sweep while impressive in the standings is over a team probably not making the Big Ten Tournament. The fact that Northwestern bats .251 and put up 23 runs should scare you. But being 9-1 in your last ten games is nothing to scoff about. If Nebraska manages to take the series from Indiana then you are going to be talking about Meyers, Jake Hohensee, and Derek Burkamper. Burkamper and Hohensee make up the first part of the rotation and can be elite pitchers when they are on. Both Hohensee and Burkamper try and get to cute, to often and have a habit of walking people. Both pitchers have walk rates of over 5.0 BB/9.
If Hohensee can locate on Friday night and Nebraska can get the series opener in a low scoring affair, it should give them confidence.
CQ: Indiana’s pitching, on the other hand, is something of a nightmare right now. Friday “ace” Jonathan Stiever is still working back from injury and, as we saw against Northwestern last weekend, isn’t right yet. And the backend of the bullpen has some real problems and it seems that no lead is safe. How good is Nebraska’s offense and who should Indiana fans fear coming to the plate?
God, our offense is questionable at best. Angelo Altavilla has been a surprise as he bats over .420 on balls put in play. The only problem with Altavilla is he has a tendency to strike out, as he leads the team with 19. Mojo Hagge is a Jake Meyers type player on steroids. He will be a little engine that could every game, battling pitchers and putting a good swing on most pitches. Scott Schreiber is still on the team, after hitting 16 home runs a season ago. Those three all bat over .330 and make for a dangerous trio. Behind them it is a mixed bag from players such as Jesse Wilkening the catcher who bats .255 to Luis Alvarado who bats .271 and then down to the struggling players such as Miller and Schleppenbach.
CQ: Last question: what do you think happens in Bloomington this weekend?
KY: Since I have a tendency to be a little long winded, I will make this short and sweet. I started writing this thinking Indiana could sweep Nebraska this weekend. Now I have talked myself into how much of a dumpster fire Indiana pitching is and how much Northwestern is overrated garbage that I think Nebraska could take 2 of 3 games in a highly competitive contest. Heart says Nebraska takes 2 out of 3. Brain says Indiana takes 2 out of 3.
Big thanks to Keith and Corn Nation. Stay tuned to Crimson Quarry for our full series preview and coverage from this weekend’s games.