All together now..........Shane who?
You think that's cruel? Maybe, but losing the best pitcher in NU history has done about as much damage to NU this year as it did last year. It's not to say that Shane wasn't worth his weight in gold, but when you force other players to step up, that's what they do or they fold completely.
Because of Shane's absence, we perhaps got a sooner than expected look at Aaron Marsden and this year, nobody can get enough of someone that is turning out to be one of the country's best. Again and again, Marsden proves himself to be dominant inside and out and even when he struggled, he still looked good. Against the Horns, different day, same story as Texas couldn't come up with any more of an answer to Marsden's repertoire of pitches than pretty much anyone else.
Even the loss that came on Friday against Mizzou had nothing to do with Marsden. All he did was go 7 innings, strike out a career-high 11 and allow only 3 total hits. Unfortunately for Tim Schoeninger, he was the victim of what ever pitcher (even Aaron) must go through, especially one so young, as he got lit up like a pinball machine, at least for him, as he gave up 7 hits thru 1 and 2/3 innings, allowing 4 earned runs, which took a Husker lead and made it a Tiger lead that just happened to come in the last inning of the game.
No biggy though as Nebraska took that series just like they took the one against the Horns and instead of going through all the stats, let's just look at how big this last series against Texas was.
First and you just can't say enough, Matt Hopper is proving to be nothing more than the biggest impact guy that Nebraska has on the plate. Just imagine what this guy could have done had he stayed healthy his entire career. All he's done is take over the team RBI lead, set all-time team records in hits, ribbies and dingers, but he's now the Big XII's all-time best home run hitter for a career. And this guy still has a chunk of games to go.
Over and over, again and again, this guy has come up huge, nothing bigger than his 3-run shot agaisnt Texas that broke a 3-all tie in the 7th that broke the game open and ultimately, shut the door on Texas' hope of coming out of Lincoln winning two out of three.
Even in the loss against Texas yesterday, Hopper still managed to go yard, his conference-leading 16th of the season. This guy has simply been off the hook in terms of flat out getting it done. I know I said I wasn't going to get all caught up in stats, but check this out. Matt is second on the team in total at-bats, but that's almost where it stops in him not leading the team in just about everything else, including hits (tied for first actually), ribbies, total bases, batting average and of course, round-trippers. Hopper has been a smooth but hardly silent opposition killer that seems to only be getting better.
And since we have been talking about a star that is, let's talk about the next star that will be. Yes, Alex Gordon. When a pitcher is "on", he's "hitting his groove", but when a batter is on, he's "seeing the ball well". Alex is doing that not just at the plate, but in the field as if you saw the second game against Texas, Gordon made an incredible dive for a line-out, illustrating again just how much of an all-around game this young man has. He's second on the team in batting average, second to Hopper of course and again, it's only Hopper that keeps him out of the lead in on base percentage as well. Yes, he had hype coming into this season, but few can say with a straight face that he hasn't lived up to all of that and then some his very first year out. The question isn't how good he will be, but how long NU can keep him, much like the same question that follows Huskers' best starting pitcher right now, Aaron. Talent like this simply doesn't last that long, especially when they are lefties.
How about the pitching? There are other pitchers besides Marsden that contribute to this team's winning ways. In the first game against Texas though, it was indeed all Marsden as he went the whole game, again striking out a career high and cementing himself as one of the best, period. In game two however that again came down to the wire, it was clutch pitching and yes, clutch hitting by the aforementioned Hopper and Gordon that came through to take the series from Texas.
This is where Tim got a little redemption, going an inning and a third, allowing only two hits and striking out one to close the door on a feared Texas comeback. Ironically enough, the pitcher that perhaps was the shakiest in the outing (Jason Burch) was the pitcher that got the win as Jason went in and before you knew it, Jason was out, having walked to, allowing an earned run and exhibiting his well-known struggles with his control. This year, many have seen what Burch can do, but the fear has always been what he has traditionally done and it's either he's really good or really bad. In this instance though, NU was able to hold on and squeak it out to send the Horns home losers of two out of three.
Overall though, especially when you include the Missouri series, this has been about as dramatic a week or so as anyone following Husker baseball has experienced since back in the post-season last year against Richmond. It wasn't a comeback fest, but there was a definite uncertainty with each and every game all the way down to the very last inning and in these two series, nothing changed in that. The Cardiac kids were what they were dubbed from the Missouri series. I prefer to call them stubborn. Too bull-headed to give up, even to a team that the experts thought they couldn't beat.
Well, believe it or not, this is absolutely, positively the most dangerous time for NU and that loss to Texas in Omaha is perhaps the best thing that could have happened to the Huskers.
How many times have you seen a team come off a huge series where there was a lot of drama, a plethora of emotion and they ultimately ended up winning the whole thing? That is prime territory for a big letdown the next time around, no matter who you are facing.
With Creighton coming up, there are no conference implications, but I doubt you will hear any Husker or Jay tell you that this game doesn't mean a thing.
After last year's emotional and flat out bizarre thriller ending in Haymarket park as a RBI single over the shortstop brought in Adam Riddle for the game-winning run amidst a driving rainstorm, nearly sparking a bench-clearing brawl, yeah, this game means more than just a little.
It's in-state bragging rights and Creighton always fields a capable team and their manager has proven himself to be savvy and very unpredictable in just how he tries to get a win against the Huskers. To them, this is playoff game without the playoff implications and to the Huskers, pretty much the same. It's heated, it's involving two teams that simply don't care for one another all that much and for either team, coming out with a win is a boost for the record, but the emotional boost is worth a heck of a lot more.
The loss to the Horns probably brought reality back to the Huskers as a sweep surely would have sent them into a frenzy, though controlled to say the least. Mike Anderson isn't one to let his team get complacent, quite the opposite in fact, but had NU won, the chance for a letdown would have certainly loomed, even in the face of such ardent mental discipline.
Last year, Creighton was the spark that really got it going for NU. This year, it could be the one that keeps NU on track. After the Jays, it's another alleged "gimmee" with late-addition, South Dakota and then, the final road-trip out of the state for the Huskers (yes, I said final road-trip) as they head down to Lubbock to face the Red Raiders.
So, now is not the time to be happy about what they have done, although they have plenty to be happy about. This is the time where a team doesn't think about what it's done, rather what it still has to do.
Often, you will hear great players part of great teams saying that when you see blood in the water, you don't step back to enjoy what you've done, you charge in to go for the jugular and turn a trickle of bleeding into a hemophiliac-like deluge.
For Nebraska, that's no doubt going to be their goal as though Omaha may seem to be getting closer, this is probably the time where they need to treat it as a time where it's the farthest away.
It's the home-stretch and NU is in fine form and no, this isn't a Secretariat at the Belmont kind of race, but the Husker are stretching their legs, heading out of the final turn with a nose in front of the competition.
So and yes, I have to say it, if Nebraska can just "play within themselves" and remember that "when the going gets tough, the tough get going" and even, "just take it one game at a time", they should be smiling all the way to Omaha................again.
Man, I hate a cliche'.
Steve Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 402-730-5619