So, the Nebraska baseball team this season will play fresh faces in key places against a wicked nonconference schedule.

The gantlet in the coming month includes games against four teams in the D1Baseball Preseason Top 25: No. 3 Texas Tech, No. 8 Oregon State, No. 14 Mississippi State and No. 15 Baylor. Oregon State won the national championship in 2018.

Somebody grab an oxygen tank.

Deep breaths, everyone, especially the rookies.

"Actually, my inning went pretty well," said Nebraska senior left-handed pitcher Nate Fisher, referring to his first ever inning for the Huskers in 2015. "But your knees and ankles are shaking. You can hardly breathe. It's just something you've got to do."

"After that first outing, it was like, 'OK, I can do this, I can pitch here,'" Fisher added. "But you always have jitters. You always have that angst before every outing."

Nebraska's 2019 group of 15 newcomers, including 11 freshmen, was ranked 16th nationally by D1Baseball. Spencer Schwellenbach, an infielder/pitcher from Saginaw, Michigan, is the headliner. Colby Gomes, a right-handed pitcher from Millard West, is part of the four-man rotation for this weekend's season-opening series at UC Riverside. The first game is Friday night.

With Nebraska coming off a 24-28 finish (8-14 Big Ten) in 2018, it isn't ideal to throw a bunch of young players into one of the program's toughest nonconference schedules in recent memory. Darin Erstad, the eighth-year Husker head coach, knows fans are watching his program closely. Cynics already gird for a predictable story line: Wait until next season, when the young guns have some experience.

Erstad doesn't want to hear about next year. A healthier pitching staff is an immediate reason for optimism — and so is the influx of young talent.

Jaxon Hallmark, a sophomore who hit .261 as a freshman in 2018, will remind the first-year players this weekend to pay attention to their breathing. He'll emphasize the importance of keeping emotions in check.

"All these freshmen are coming in, and they're all really good," Hallmark said. "This is probably one of the better recruiting classes we've had in a while. They're coming in and trying to win (starting) spots. They're not just happy to be here.

"So, even if the freshmen aren't playing right away, they're pushing the older guys to play better."

Erstad had Hallmark sit out the first game of last season, also at Riverside, so the rookie could get a feel for the speed of college baseball.

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"I started game two and it was going really fast," Hallmark said. "I was pretty shook out there, I'm not going to lie to you. I'm hoping this year, now that I've got a lot of games under my belt, that the game slows down a little bit."

A native of Midland, Texas, Hallmark was "shook out there" because he failed to heed the advice of a high school coach: Don't look into the stands.

"I looked into the stands and saw how many people were there," he said. "I got a little worried and kind of nervous, like, 'Oh, man, if I mess up, this is in front of a lot more people than I've normally played in front of.'

"The pitcher threw a pitch, then he threw another one. It was just baseball at that point. I went back to my old ways and just played."

Hallmark said he planned to share his experience with the younger players Thursday once the team made it to California for the four-game series. His overriding message: "It's baseball. You've played it since you were a little kid. Take a deep breath and do what you've been doing your entire life."

The culture that Erstad's established in his program could, in a roundabout way, help ease initial anxiety. Erstad preaches that if you're not going to play your hardest, you're not going to play, period, Hallmark said. The coach won't scold anyone for aggressive mistakes.

So, right there is a good message for young players: Control what you can control, starting with effort.

"These new guys are hungry," Fisher said of the pitchers, most notably Gomes and Bo Blessie, also of Midland, Texas, a 36th-round draft pick by the Washington Nationals last summer. "They're just excited for the opportunity to throw."

Same goes for the left-handed Fisher of Yutan, who's in the starting rotation this weekend despite missing five days of preseason practice with a sprained ankle.

"I was running out to my car and jumped over a curb, and I hit the down side of the curb," he said.

He took a leap, just like the freshmen will do this weekend in California.

Yeah, deep breaths, everyone.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.


Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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