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NU baseball practice,1.25

Nebraska baseball coach Darin Erstad talks to his players during practice Jan. 25 at Hawks Championship Center. Nebraska is looking to reach the NCAA Tournament for a fourth time in six seasons.

Nebraska’s baseball team sits alone in third place in the Big Ten standings.

So why all the hand-wringing by fans? Why the grumbling? Even if it’s a vocal minority, the noise is substantial. It’s an interesting study, really. After all, the Huskers were picked by league coaches to finish sixth.

If many Nebraska baseball fans, especially the casual ones, seem confused by the tone of the conversation, it’s understandable.

If some fans go back and forth on their opinion of Darin Erstad’s capability as the program’s leader, well, that’s understandable, too.

It’s in many ways a complex conversation.

Based on preseason expectations, one could say Nebraska (24-18, 13-8 Big Ten) is overachieving. Yes, overachieving. The Huskers trail first-place Michigan by only three games. The Wolverines (36-11, 14-3), who have won 13 straight contests, come to Lincoln next week for a monster series to end the regular season.

Wait a second, though. Overachieving? Really? The Huskers have dropped three straight Big Ten series. Looking back, Erstad’s crew took care of business against teams in the lower half the standings — it swept Michigan State, Purdue and Penn State — but lost three-game series to upper-half teams Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois.

Nebraska then dropped a three-game series against Northwestern, which enters this weekend tied with Maryland for eighth in the league standings at 8-10.

By the way, Erstad stiff-arms the idea that his team has overachieved.

“I personally think we haven’t played our best baseball,” he said Thursday. “We still have not played defensively like I anticipated us to play and I know we can play. On the mound, I think some of our older guys have done a nice job, and a couple younger guys have done well, too. We have some younger guys who haven’t come on as quickly as we’d like.

“At the plate, we had some holes to fill. We knew that. I think a couple guys have done a nice job. But overall, I don’t think we’ve sustained what we’re capable of offensively. To say we’ve overachieved … If anything, I think we’ve underachieved.”

Nebraska’s series loss to Northwestern elicited plenty of grumbling among Erstad’s detractors. Had his team dropped the third game Monday, the anti-Erstad faction would have been further emboldened because the Huskers would have fallen to fifth place in the league standings. There would have been greater concern about NU failing to qualify for the eight-team Big Ten Tournament in Omaha for the second straight season.

Such an occurrence would be embarrassing for a program with ample resources and support.

Such an occurrence would give even the most reasonable Nebraska fans pause about Erstad’s effectiveness as the head coach.

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Such an occurrence might even require serious conversations between Erstad and his boss, Bill Moos, who has demonstrated a low tolerance for scuffling programs.

So, we’re talking about a thin line here. Is it fair the line — one win against Northwestern — seems that thin? Probably. Bottom line, Nebraska’s struggles leading to the Northwestern series put the Huskers in a precarious situation. The third-game victory definitely settled some nerves and gave NU some breathing room.

But a delightfully complicated conversation persists.

Consider: Baseball America projects Nebraska as a three seed in an NCAA regional (D1Baseball.com has NU among its first five out). If the Huskers make the field, it would be their fourth appearance in six years. That hardly seems like hot-seat material.

Alas, a complication: The Huskers were a combined 1-11 in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments in the three years prior to last season, when they were 24-28 overall and 8-14 in the Big Ten, good for 10th in the 13-team league. But keep in mind, NU finished at least second in the standings four out of five years leading to last season. So there’s that.

Erstad says he’s well aware of the need for Nebraska "to get over the hump" in the NCAA Tournament. Of course, the Huskers have to get there first, which brings us to the critical two series ahead: If NU shows well against Arizona State and Michigan, the expressions of doubt about Erstad would dissipate significantly, pending the team’s performance in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments.

“I’m just concerned about playing good baseball,” he said. “We haven’t for the last few weeks clicked on all cylinders.”

That said, Nebraska has been better on the hill this season, sporting a team ERA of 4.19 (76th nationally) compared to 5.70 last season (231st). But the Huskers average only 5.7 runs (147th), down from 6.5 (53rd). They have only 21 home runs, tied for 235th nationally. It seems nothing comes easily. Of course, it should be noted three freshmen and four sophomores are regulars in the lineup.

So, the discussion continues. Back and forth it goes. The name "Erstad" works against apathy settling in. He’s the program’s biggest star, which is part of the issue. He could use an Alex Gordon, Joba Chamberlain or Shane Komine.

Nebraska in the early 2000s pumped out All-Americans on a regular basis: John Cole (2001), Dan Johnson (2001), Komine (2000, 2001), Matt Hopper (2001), Jeff Leise (2002) and Jed Morris (2002). Gordon was the program’s last All-American (2004, 2005).

Husker fans remember those days. They long for those type of days. Is a return to that sort of winning — three CWS trips in a five-year stretch — even realistic for a Big Ten team?

That’s another complicated discussion for another day.

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

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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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