LINCOLN — His team was making its way to the bus after a series-clinching win when Indiana’s third baseman stood in Haymarket Park’s outfield grass one last time.
His eyes wandered while he contemplated his three-day stay at a ballpark that made him feel like baseball in the Big Ten was big time.
Soon, junior Dustin DeMuth summed up his thoughts on his experience at Nebraska, which echoed sentiment among players in this once-dormant baseball conference.
“I’m glad they’re in the Big Ten. I’m glad we could play here,” he said after a Monday rubber match earlier this month. “This is what college baseball is about.”
He wasn’t intimidated, overwhelmed or rattled.
DeMuth had been looking forward to his visit to Lincoln.
As had his teammates, along with the rest of the Big Ten squads that have road-tripped to Nebraska during its two years in its new conference.
It’s true that Big Ten programs have increased their investment in the sport, updating their facilities or building new ones.
But most are behind the Huskers — a gap that actually has energized and inspired guys like DeMuth who are familiar with the days when their dugout was also the visiting locker room and when players were the ones pulling the tarp onto the infield when rain started to fall.
The Huskers were 6-6 in conference games at home this season, a record that cost them a first-round bye in the Big Ten tournament. They’re the three seed, set to play Michigan at 3:35 p.m. Wednesday at Target Field in Minneapolis. (The five other league tourney teams combined for a .667 winning percentage in Big Ten play).
Nebraska may be restocking its talent, but its stadium is as pristine as ever. And conference opponents want to play there.
Said DeMuth: “The field’s nice. A big backdrop behind home plate. There’s the football stadium in the background. And all the fans show up. On a Monday. At noon.”
Northwestern senior shortstop Trevor Stevens had fun, too, making sure to check out NU’s indoor facility — opened last year — before he left. He also mentioned the Husker fans, who seemed baseball savvy and engaged.
The atmosphere was one of the reasons Ohio State senior infielder Ryan Cypret called the Buckeyes’ trip to Lincoln “by far the best Big Ten experience” his team has had in his career.
“Nebraska was head over heels above the other schools,” OSU’s starting second baseman said. “And that’s awesome. That’s going to raise the bar in the Big Ten.”
The conference’s ballparks appear to be moving in a positive direction overall.
Indiana used to have a slight slope in left field, but the Hoosiers built a stadium with artificial turf for this season. Purdue didn’t have a locker room at its facility until it opened a new one in 2013. Minnesota has a new park, but no lights yet.
Ohio State installed artificial turf in 2011. Illinois did the same three years prior. Michigan will next year, too. Only Northwestern and Iowa haven’t made significant facility alterations in the past seven years.
But in all, upgrades are helping the league’s national perception.
“I think there’s some momentum there,” NU coach Darin Erstad said. “But now, you’ve got to go out and play well in the postseason. I think that will probably open more people’s eyes than anything.”
The Big Ten still hasn’t produced a super regional team since 2007 or a CWS participant since 1984.
And until someone makes a national splash, the league players will continue to hear about all of the obstacles — the weather, the lack of exposure, the fading tradition. They’ll occasionally get teased by their summer ball teammates, too. Jokes like this: “Do you guys still play seven-inning games?”
Stevens laughs it off. He thinks the conference has better days ahead.
He said the young talent in the Big Ten has noticeably improved since he arrived.
“You see underclassmen have more of a role in starting lineups,” he said before bringing up Nebraska and some of the Big Ten’s new ballparks.
“With all these new stadiums and new facilities being built, recruits are going to see all this state-of-the-art equipment, and they’re really going to be drawn to these places.”
Kind of like how the Big Ten’s veterans react to the baseball amenities at Haymarket Park.
“It was great,” Stevens said. “A cool place to see.”
Ľ NOTES: The Huskers will start sophomore left-hander Kyle Kubat in Wednesday’s Big Ten tournament opener against Michigan. The Wolverines will counter with right-hander James Bourque, who struck out six in 323 innings of work against NU on Thursday. … NU coaches are tentatively planning to use junior Christian DeLeon on Friday, assuming he bounces back from a bullpen session Monday. The team’s ace did not pitch last weekend because of elbow soreness. … Senior Rich Sanguinetti, who left Saturday’s game after fouling a ball off his foot, could miss Wednesday’s game, the first in the six-team double-elimination event. He’s day-to-day.
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