LINCOLN — Coach Darin Erstad said the reason for the changes to Nebraska’s batting order last week was more opponent-driven than anything, but it seems to have provided a temporary spark for a sputtering Husker offense.
Erstad wanted to mix and match his right-handed and left-handed hitters, what he figured would make it more challenging for opposing pitchers to match up.
It seemed to do more than that. The Huskers (8-14, 2-1 Big Ten), who were averaging 3.1 runs per game and hitting .227 before last week, scored 33 runs over five games at No. 8 Cal State Fullerton and Illinois.
Granted, the production came against the Titans’ midweek starters and an Illini staff that’s not as acclaimed as what Nebraska saw during the season’s first five weekends.
But last week Erstad said he was looking for progress from the Huskers, who became too “pull happy” at times. They embraced that philosophy during a four-game homestand to begin March, but abandoned it a bit after that — not hitting enough line drives to the opposite field, especially when pitchers were throwing fastballs away from NU hitters.
“As a group, we got a little bit out of our approach,” Erstad said.
Perhaps NU’s offense, ranked in the top 10 nationally in batting average and runs scored last year, is clicking again. The Huskers will try to keep the momentum rolling at Kansas State (16-8, 2-1 Big 12) Tuesday, when NU’s Tyler Niederklein starts against Wildcat right-hander Jake Doller.
Lately, Nebraska’s been setting the tone with the top of the order, where there’s been a new look.
A slumping Rich Sanguinetti, the full-time No. 2 hitter last year from the left-handed side of the plate, moved into the leadoff spot and started seeing more pitches (lots of fastballs). The versatile Pat Kelly took Sanguinetti’s old spot. Then it was junior Michael Pritchard, a left-handed hitter who projected as a potential clean-up hitter before taking over at leadoff last season. Senior Chad Christensen and sophomore Austin Darby (another lefty hitter) followed.
Those five Huskers batted .413 in five games, scoring 20 runs and driving in 14.
It appears to be an example of the Huskers’ mental toughness, which Erstad has praised since February.
Nebraska lost seven straight to start the year and dropped six of eight to start its 12-game extended road trip. But NU won its conference-opening series at Illinois last weekend.
“We have a resilient group of guys,” Erstad said.
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