Say this for Darin Erstad: He makes for interesting ballpark conversation.

In his fifth season as Nebraska's baseball coach, you can't say his program has overachieved. But it hasn't necessarily underachieved.

He has recruited good players, but not enough elite ones. He's sniffed a Big Ten Championship, but hasn't closed the deal. And, yes, that's surprising this deep into his tenure.

Erstad himself is an interesting study. As a player, he was supremely gifted, but also a grinder. If he wasn't the hardest-working player on his team, he was in the conversation.

So, part of the conversation is this: Erstad knows what it takes to win championships. He played for a World Series champion. But is it challenging for him to relate to players who are neither supremely talented nor Grade-A grinders? After all, there are only so many Erstad-types walking the Earth.

But give him his due. He prodded this season's team onto the NCAA Tournament bubble and even into Big Ten regular-season title contention. Nebraska (31-17, 11-7 Big Ten) has won nine of its last 12 games entering this weekend's series against Penn State (26-23, 10-8) at Haymarket Park. Then comes a game Tuesday night against Creighton (32-11, 10-2 Big East), followed by a home series to end the regular season against Big Ten leader Indiana (29-17, 13-5).

If Nebraska plays well the rest of the way — goes, say, 5-2 — it will be in prime position to receive an NCAA at-large bid. And let's face it, considering its resources and overall program support, NU should almost always be in the NCAA Tournament conversation (that word again).

In that regard, Erstad has the program where it should be. Or close to it.

"I think it's fair to say they should be in the NCAA Tournament discussion every year," said Kyle Peterson of Omaha, a veteran ESPN college baseball analyst. "But I don't think it's fair to say they should be an NCAA (Tournament) team every year. I just don't. So much is dependent on the league you play in. That's the nature of the RPI. Ultimately, you can't control the league as a whole."

It should be noted the Big Ten is much stronger than it was, say, five years ago.

"I think that helps, but at the end of the day it's still tougher to qualify for the NCAA Tournament out of the Big Ten than it is from out of the SEC or ACC or Pac-12 or even the Big 12, probably," Peterson said.

Bottom line, Nebraska is doing "pretty darned well" if it's reaching the NCAA Tournament every other year, Peterson said.

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The Huskers were frustrated late last season as they tumbled from the bubble conversation, dropping 12 of their last 17 games to finish 34-23, including 9-14 in the conference.

That finish skews the current conversation because Nebraska did in fact reach the NCAA Tournament with an at-large bid in 2014 and was only a few wins away from a bid in 2013, when NU wound up 29-30 but had an RPI of 31 thanks to a treacherous nonconference schedule.

In 2012, Erstad's first season in charge, Nebraska showed marked improvement, especially on offense, but was outside the bubble — again. From 2009-11, NU's best record in the Big 12 was 9-17.

That contrasts to 1999-2008, when Nebraska failed only once to reach the NCAA Tournament and made three College World Series appearances (2001, '02, '05). Of course, Dave Van Horn deserves much of the credit. The diamond wizard set the bar treacherously high.

"I don't know if Husker fans realized how good it was — until now," Peterson said. "But I think in moving to a new league, it wasn't sustainable. What you're seeing now is probably more realistic of what the norm is probably going to be."

Erstad retains high expectations. He's prideful. He bristled last May when I asked him how he would address doubters.

"I'm not here to justify or defend," he said. "Baseball's a game of adjustments, and we have to do better. I have to get better at my job."

Erstad got better. He took over the offense in the offseason, and it's been interesting to watch NU gravitate from "small ball." The offense has improved in most major categories.

The pitching staff made big strides in the last month. A weekend rotation crystallized. There's decent depth in bullpen, especially with hard-throwing left-hander Max Knutson finding his command. Meanwhile, right-hander Chad Luensmann ranks second nationally among freshmen with 11 saves.

Erstad, though, sounded far from satisfied after Wednesday night's 8-2 win against Nebraska-Omaha.

"I read body language, and I didn't see confidence up at the plate," he said. "I didn't see a presence in the box. About midway through the game, we started getting our swings off. That was good. But runner at third and less than two (outs), I saw timid body language. You can't have that."

You appreciate such intensity. Erstad's a brawler. He keeps the conversation lively. Now, if he could just produce some Big Ten hardware.

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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