LINCOLN — At a time when Nebraska most needs stability, the Huskers will be without their most consistent starting pitcher.
Junior right-hander Christian DeLeon, NU's No. 1 arm since March, is out for the regular season's final series against Michigan with elbow soreness. He'll be re-evaluated for next week's Big Ten tournament.
It's a blow to these mentally maturing Huskers, who are coming off a big series win over Minnesota last weekend. They're in the mix for their first conference title in eight years, at worst hoping they'll finish the week in second place to earn a bye in the league tourney.
But now there's another obstacle to overcome for a team that's been battling to find its footing all year.
“(We're trying to) find that high level of execution, focus and intensity, that we still haven't put together for a long stretch,” NU coach Darin Erstad said.
Taking two of three at Minnesota was a positive sign for Erstad considering what was at stake. The players felt energized afterward, too, after clinching the series with an 8-0 win Sunday.
“There was something about us that day,” senior reliever Dylan Vogt said. To stay in the league race, that was a must-win scenario and perhaps it heightened the Huskers' focus, according to junior Michael Pritchard.
Now the Huskers have to build off it — without DeLeon, a junior college transfer who's been their workhorse all season.
He's started eight series openers and thrown through the sixth inning in seven of them, leaving a depleted bullpen fresh for the back end of the weekend. Big Ten batters hit .311 off him, but DeLeon's walked just eight in 45 13 innings during league action.
“He's kept us in every ballgame he's pitched in,” Erstad said.
But DeLeon slowed while warming up for the seventh inning last Friday. No structural problems, Erstad said, just discomfort. The Huskers (24-26, 14-7) hope a week off will take the pain away.
The concern now is maintaining without him.
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Nebraska, tied for second in the league, needs one win to officially qualify for the Big Ten tournament (though losses by a couple of other teams could bump NU in, too). The Huskers still could win an outright regular season crown if they swept Michigan (27-24, 12-9), if league leader Indiana lost twice against Ohio State (33-19, 14-7) and Illinois if took one from Minnesota (29-18, 12-6). With just one loss by the Hoosiers (38-12, 15-6) and Gophers, a share of the title becomes a possibility for Nebraska.
“In our minds,” Pritchard said, “we're playing for a conference championship this weekend.”
But they don't want that altering their approach.
It was Erstad's message in Minnesota. All year, really.
The Huskers were 0-7 after the first two weekends of the regular season, the worst start to a season since 1942. Bizarre injuries temporarily sidelined last year's ace (Kyle Kubat) and their best contact hitter (Pritchard). The starting third baseman (Josh Scheffert) and an emerging reliever (Zach Hirsch) are still out. There were snowstorms and rainouts, blowouts and heartbreakers.
But as Erstad puts it, if a player's mindset is altered by the circumstance — like that adversity, or the opponent's name, or the fans' energy, or the game's importance — he's destined to underachieve.
When the Huskers are at their best this year, they're focused just on their own performance. And that, it appears, is the key to extending the season.
“It's that moment where everybody tries to rise to the occasion. People don't rise to the occasion, they just keep doing what they always do,” Erstad said. “Win or lose, we do it on our terms. If we get beat, we get beat. But let's not get beat by walking guys, by having errors or by having a bad approach at the plate. Let's do all the things we're capable of doing.”
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