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NU Baseball Practice, 9/13/18

Nebraska coach Darin Erstad (facing) talks with the team during the opening day of fall practice in September at Haymarket Park.

Since the weather today is better-suited for baseball than most of the spring was, let's take a drive over to Haymarket Park to check in on the Huskers as the open fall practice.

1. No one needs reminding that last season was a disaster for NU on the mound, which led to a disaster in the win-loss column. A rash of arm injuries beginning in 2016 decimated Nebraska's pitching depth as the Huskers finished the season ranked 231st out of 297 Division I teams with an ERA of 5.70.

At one point last season, Nebraska had a pitching staff on which more than half of its 18 members had missed time with arm injuries.

That led to changes in Nebraska's offseason workout regimen as players started to work their way back. A new throwing program was formulated, Husker junior right-hander Chad Luensmann said, with NU pitchers doing more band work and more long-toss as part of an effort to strengthen arms and shoulders in the offseason.

"Just like very year, you're going to try and find a way to better your program. And for me personally, when stuff like that happens, it's on me," NU coach Darin Erstad said Thursday. "Coach (Ted) Silva (NU's pitching coach) and I have spent a lot of time getting things in organized in that regard, and just more or less saying this is the way it's going to be, and stick to it, and it's going to be a priority."

Erstad said the Huskers could potentially have 12 new arms to work with this season, between returning players and new additions.

Chief among them is Luensmann, the Big Ten freshman of the year in 2016 who is in the final stages of rehab from Tommy John surgery. Luensmann said Thursday was the first day he really "cut it loose" in workouts, but the bullpen stud and potential Friday night starter won't throw this fall as he prepares for a full return in winter workouts before competing for a spot in the spring.

Luensmann said it's now a matter of regaining full strength in his right arm and regaining the confidence he had before his injury.

"It was tough to watch (last season). I was upset I didn't get to play. It's hard to watch and not be able to do anything when guys were out there struggling," Luensmann said. "I tried to take control of the dugout as best I could; keep the guys in it when things got tough."

2. Other pitchers with experience for Nebraska — Reece Eddins, Paul Tillotson, Andrew Abrahamowicz and Conor Curry among them — are in various stages of rehab.

"We’re very encouraged with the direction a lot of our guys are taking right now," Erstad said. "They’re kind of all in different phases of being ready. Maybe a couple of them throw at the end of the fall, some of them we won’t see until the beginning of the season, but overall they’re doing a really nice job. And not just arm-wise. You can tell they’ve put in some work body-wise."

3. The returners are joined by a freshman class that could see as many as seven freshmen get their shot on the mound. That includes a trio of two-way players in their first year of college ball — Grand Island native Shay Schanaman, Millard West graduate Colby Gomes, Michigan prep star Spencer Schwellenbach. Schwellenbach was drafted in the 34th round of this summer's MLB Draft by the Cleveland Indians before deciding to come to Lincoln. 

Erstad said all three will start out competing as position players, but are also on the same throwing program as Nebraska's pitchers and on track to get their shots on the mound later in the fall.

Other true freshmen include infielders Brett Hammit, Cam Chick, Drew Gilin; outfielder Blake Peterson; right-handed pitcher Bo Blessie, who was a 36th-round pick by the Washington Nationals; and left-handers Caleb Feekin, Tyler Martin and Kyle Perry

4. Throw in four transfers to go with the 11 freshmen, and Nebraska's clubhouse is more full than usual.

Senior Angelo Altavilla said it's as many new players as he's seen during his time in Lincoln.

"I don't know how many new guys there are, but there's quite a bit," Altavilla said. "But it's great to have a lot more than 35 guys just so you can have a ton of options. It'll be fun to watch those guys compete.

That 35 number is important. The Huskers' roster currently sits at 42 players. According to NCAA rules, a Division I program is allowed 35 total players when the season starts. So what was already an open competition for playing time up and down the lineup figures to be as intense as it's been in years.

5. The competition begins almost immediately with a week of practice before next Saturday's exhibition game against Wichita State at Haymarket Park. 

An NCAA rule change this year allows teams to schedule up to two exhibitions in the fall that don't count against a team's 56-game spring schedule. Previously, any fall games counted against the 56-game limit.

The Nebraska players who met with the media Thursday were unanimous in saying the change is a good one.

"It's always nice not seeing your own arms, because you get used to them; you know what their stuff is going to do," junior Luke Roskam said. So it's more of a game-like situation with someone you're not used to out there."

While Nebraska won't be fully ready for an actual game come the September 22 exhibition against Wichita State, Erstad said, the matchup will provide an important barometer for how players are coming off the summer and how the freshmen are adjusting. First pitch against the Shockers is set for 11:30 a.m., or 30 minutes after the NU football team kicks off against Michigan.

"Fortunately we're going to see a couple different jerseys this year to get a sneak peek at who can handle it and who cant," Erstad said.

Nebraska's second exhibition game is set for October 6 against Kansas, with a start time to be announced. Both games are open to the public. The Red-White series is set for October 19, 26 and 27.

6. As for Nebraska's spring schedule, don't expect an announcement on that for at least a couple more weeks. Last year's schedule was released around the first week of October. So far the only games Nebraska has released are its three matchups at the Frisco (Texas) Classic March 1-3 against Texas Tech, Sam Houston State and Mississippi State. Texas Tech and Mississippi State advanced to the 2018 College World Series. Sam Houston Stat has won 42, 44 and 39 games the last three seasons, and advanced to a NCAA Super Regional in 2017.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7436 or cbasnett@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraCB.

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Husker basketball reporter

A Ravenna native, Chris covers the University of Nebraska men's basketball team and assists with football coverage. He spent nearly 10 years covering sports at the Kearney Hub and nearly four years at the Springfield News-Leader in Springfield, Mo.

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