LINCOLN — The bases were loaded at Iowa two weeks ago, and Nebraska’s Michael Pritchard stepped to the plate to see if his offseason work would pay off.
It was exactly the type of situation that drove him crazy last year.
He batted .387 and recorded a 25-game hit streak during an All-America sophomore season, effortlessly spraying line drives and well-placed grounders all over the field. He oozed with confidence — few guys on the team show more emotion on the diamond.
Yet, when Pritchard would spot that teammate standing on third base as he entered the batter’s box, panic crept in.
“I was awful. Absolutely terrible. I got too nervous,” Pritchard said. “I just didn’t have any confidence in myself to get anybody in.”
But that was last year.
So there he was at Iowa. The team’s new three-hole hitter. Bases full. His team down by a run. One weak grounder would end the threat.
Not a problem for this year’s Pritchard. That’s why he spent all fall preparing for this spot. He hit third during scrimmages and set up RBI situations during batting practices.
And in that game against the Hawkeyes, it was Pritchard’s two-run double with the bases loaded that sparked a fourth-inning rally and helped NU earn a 12-8 win.
It’s not that Pritchard has completely overhauled his approach — he’s been up with runners on first and second with no outs four times in the last five games and bunted every time. Nor has he been perfect — he grounded into a double play with teammates on first and third at Iowa, and he popped out with a guy on third and just one out against Ohio State on Saturday.
But it’s his confidence that has stabilized him in this role.
“I’m just more mentally into it,” Pritchard said.
He’s currently riding a 16-game hit streak, batting .377 during that stretch. His move from leadoff to the third spot in Nebraska’s batting order just so happened to correspond with the revival of the Huskers’ offense. The team batting average rose from .227 after 15 games to .283, and NU has scored double the amount of runs per game since.
“I like to have a three-hole hitter that’s kind of a hybrid guy,” Nebraska coach Darin Erstad said. “(Someone) that can drive runs in, but also handle the bat in hit-and-run and bunting situations.”
That’s what Pritchard has morphed into, and he’ll look to continue his hot hitting this weekend when the Huskers travel to Purdue (11-12, 4-8 Big Ten). The Boilermakers, who’ve lost six straight, are rebuilding after winning the conference last year.
But Nebraska (16-19, 8-4), sitting in third place, won’t look past Purdue. Pritchard can be sure of that.
He knows firsthand how cruel the game can be.
He missed 10 games earlier in the year because he strained his oblique muscle on a swing. He had to listen on the radio from home when Nebraska got swept at Texas in February. He played through pain until late March.
“One day you can’t swing, and then the next day you can, and then the next day you can’t,” Pritchard said.
But it could have been worse, Pritchard said. He’s just glad to be getting the opportunity to help his team win again.
“You don’t take anything for granted,” he said.
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