The Big XII tournament just concluded and for the first time in four years, NU doesn't come back to Nebraska with the title. Losing the championship game to Texas, NU comes back with a loss, but hardly feeling the effects as this was the only real stumble in what has been a late-season surge. After winning 11 consecutive games, the loss to the Horns might have been a disappointment, but it's hardly got the team second-guessing their ability. "I wish we could have came out on top", catcher, John Grose stated, "but, we are real excited about the way we are playing. Things are going so well with scoring in almost every inning lately. Even against Texas when it was 4-0, we knew we were going to come back and we did. And we came back again and just couldn't hold them off in the end."
So, rather than feeling down about a loss, the team feels good about the play during games and Grose reiterates his belief that the teams in this conference can't do anything but help as you prepare for a post-season run. "I am glad we got to go into the tournament and play those good teams and keep playing the way we are."
With 42 victories and 18 losses, there could be little doubt that Nebraska would indeed make the post-season. Add to that their RPI ranking which establishes a team's strength via wins over other quality teams, Nebraska benefitted again from the quality of the teams in the conference they play. The only question that seemed to remain was whether NU would be hosting a regional for the second year in a row.
With the renowned Haymarket park no doubt playing a role, not to mention Nebraska's consistency at bringing in large crowds, there wasn't a question of fans showing up, they would and in droves. The Creighton/NU game might have been the icing on the cake for Nebraska's hopes as the third largest crowd in regular season college baseball history attended a contest that on paper, didn't mean a thing.
The votes came in, NU got their regional and Grose (along with everyone else) was expectedly happy. "We were all excited", Grose stated. "It's going to be sweet having 10 to 12,000 fans packing the place in." Grose talked about why he thought NU got the bid to host this regional contest. "I think the way we finished the season pretty much guaranteed us the home advantage."
The first contest will be against the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Sporting a 36-18 record, and coming out of the Horizon League, nobody is expecting this to be a battle, but if post-season play has taught anyone anything, is that you learn to expect the unexpected.
NU's advantage will obviously be their burning bats led by Jed Morris who's mid to late-season surge garnered him the 2002 conference player of the year honors along with NU's leading hitter, Jeff Leise. And if that wasn't enough, add to the equation the conference newcomer of the year, Aaron Marsden and of course, some guy named Shane Komine. Even with a season sorely limited by nagging tendinitis, Komine is still tied for second in the conference with 54 strikeouts and Marsden has been nothing but stellar in his debut for the Huskers, going 16 appearances for an 8-1 record, throwing 3 complete games, striking out a total (conference and non-conference) of 67 batters , all while maintaining an ERA barely over 2. With a one-two punch like that heading into this series, one doesn't have to wonder where NU's confidence is coming from.
Aaron Marsden is likely to take the mound for the first contest against UW-Milwaukee and coming off what would be considered a bad outing (for him), Grose stated that the timing on this start couldn't have been better. "Marsden is the type of guy that if he has a bad outing, he will come out and change that. I guarantee it."
For Grose, his season success has been a matter of discipline. Some might find that a rather ironic statement considering his fiery intensity that once had coach Van Horn physically keeping him from coming out of the dugout after an opponent's pitcher hit one of NU's batters, but the discipline runs more towards his hitting than his intensity on the field. "When I am not hitting well, it's because I am trying to hit home runs", Grose said. "I think I kind of got into my groove and hit it into the gaps. That is when I am hitting at my best. I just need to keep the home runs out of my head." That philosophy has John hitting .408 in 103 at bats and he's consistently been one of Nebraska's most opportunistic hitters with runners on base, Grose actually leading the team in fewest at-bats per RBI.
Grose's performance is impressive, but it's a compliment to the team efforts NU has made over the season. Though people are likely only to look at records and say this team wasn't as good as last season's, NU's statistics this year compare fairly well. Last year's team had a batting average of .335, while this year's is hitting .315. Slugging percentage last season was .513 to this season's .484.
The two major disparities between the two clubs have been Home Runs and RBI's. NU's team of last year belted out 547 ribbies and hit 81 round-trippers while this year's team brought in almost 130 less RBIs and hit close to 20 less homers.. If any one statistic has bothered Nebraska consistently over the season, it's been batters left on base and those two aforementioned statistics can be directly attributed to that.
Though a early to mid to late-season comparison of statistics isn't directly in front of me, all you have had to do is watch NU play this latter half of the season. It hasn't been just the 11 game win streak, but a series of wins over tough opponents that have turned many question marks into resounding answers. Since the Creighton game at Lincoln that almost turned into a brawl, NU has been ignited, it would seem figuratively and literally. Since that contest, NU has lost just four times and only one of those (Kansas) could be considered a legitimate stumble, the rest of the losses coming either to top 15 teams or the conference leader at the time. As stated above, NU has peaked at just the right time.........again.
And with this run, this igniting of the offense and the confidence that has been building across the board for NU, it has in a regional, hosting that regional, but it also certainly has some thinking down the road. The College World Series might as well be an eternity away, a single series being the difference between advancing or going home, but at least for Grose, it's there and in his first year, he can't help but think of what might be. "I'm thinking about it every second of the day", John stated. "I can't stop thinking about it. It's our goal and that has been a dream of mine since I was little, to go to the College World Series." With the high aspirations however, Grose still retains perspective. "Our goal has to be to get there, but it's one game at a time."
And that first game comes today, at noon central time against the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Just another leg of the journey NU has been on since the College World Series ended for them last year. And you could think to that saying, speaking of the journey being the greatest triumph rather than the destination, but I would doubt that with Omaha just sixty miles away, anyone (but the players) is thinking about where they are, rather they contemplate about where they could be. Today, it's one step closer to just that.