Ya'know, we shouldn't even be having this conversation. We shouldn't even be talking about pitching performances gone awry, batting performances that weren't enough or Nebraska being in the College World Series at all. This team shouldn't have been there at all. Well, that's what everyone was saying at the beginning of the year.
Last season, there was this group of guys, Adam Stern, John Cole, Thomas Ott and Dan Johnson. Yeah, there were others, but this thing is going to be long enough as it is, so let's just concentrate on this foursome.
With Stern and Cole, you have over half of the steals NU had last season.
With Ott, you had as many saves last year by himself that NU had this season, all their pitchers combined.
With Johnson, you had the team's leader in home runs.
Ok, whether it was graduation or leaving early, you lose all of the above.
O.K., so, it's Nebraska, the year is 2002 and the hope is getting back to the CWS. What? Getting back to the CWS? Whatchyou talkin ‘bout Willis? No way, no how, after losing all that is NU going to get back. Forget the fact that they are a northern team and it doesn't happen, but about every time Anna Kournikova wins a tennis tournament, you just lost most of your steals, a good deal of your homers and your only real closer, plus, you lost their best middle-relief man, R.D. Spiehs.
Don't worry about getting back, just worry about the season.
Taking into account that I know as much about the technicalities of baseball play that John Madden knows about SlimFast, I can still figure this one out.
First: You lose guys that can steal bases like Stern and Cole could, you lose guys that can get from first to second without anyone taking a swing at the plate. What's that mean to the baseball layperson? It means, instead of some guy being on first forcing your hitter to become a bunter in most situations, he's on second, letting your hitter do his job allowing a single to become a possible RBI. With the small ball philosophy of Van Horn, this lack of advancing runners without hits changes the way you play.
Second: You got two or three innings left and you have the lead by one. What do you do? You send in Ott. He wasn't automatic, but compared to this year, he looks like Byung-Hyun Kim. It's been reliever and closer by committee this season and it hasn't been pretty. Except for the second inning, NU gave up more runs in the last three innings for the year. That means runs ahead turn into runs behind and one-run leads turn into the ever-popular one-run losses. Something Nebraska has had to chew on way too much this year.
Third: The loss of Dan Johnson was significant, but not as much as the previous two. Jed Morris did a fine job replacing his power, but Hopper (hampered by injuries) was little protection to Morris as he struggled most of the year. It wasn't Johnson's absence that effected NU's offense, but the lack of effectiveness across the board that hurt NU the most. Take this state into account: Last season, 17 home runs were hit by guys not regularly in the line-up, while this season, NU managed 4. With the ever-changing line-ups under Van Horn addressing righty to lefty match-ups, this is a huge statistic.
Take all that into account and you want NU to make it back the following season? Put down the crack pipe and slowly back away.
Heck, even knowing that they made it, even seeing them make it all the way back into the big show, I still can't figure it out.
If there pitching was hot, their bats were not and if the bats were roaring, pitchers' balls were soaring..........into the stands. There was hardly any consistency from the club almost the entire year until the latter parts of the season.
Ahh, I remember it like it was yesterday, Shane on the mound, dominating - Jamie Rodrigue proving to be almost every hit the Happen Hawaiin's equal and the third starter by committee rotation, not proving to be perfect, but in the early going, they were pretty darn good. The problem was that except for Jeff Leise and a couple of others, hitting was about as frequent as a Jerry Springer show on the ethics of broadcasting.
Stranding batters or not even getting out of the hole, it was NU pitching keeping NU in games and at times, winning them almost single-handedly. Even catcher, John Grose said that if the team ever to the whole thing together, pitching, offense and defense, this unit would be pretty good.
Well, at times Grose got just what he wanted. Against Texas A&M, the Aggies might as well have brought popcorn for the show instead of bats and gloves, NU sweeping them, even run-ruling them in the last contest. In that series, we saw just what Grose wanted, not to mention a stellar performance by surprising newbie, Aaron Marsden.
Some of us Big Red crazies thought this might be the spark to light the fire of NU and get them back to consistently winnings. Well, wrong. Something did light their fire though and it was a game that on paper, didn't mean a thing.
It was April 16th, this year and it was at Haymarket park. Nebraska versus Creighton. Nebraska with Leise, Morris, Seely, Eymann, Bolt, Blevins, etc. and etc. And for Creighton.......hmmm...well, they're blue. That's the tale of the tape, so LET'S GET IT ON!!!
Actually, this was an ugly game, but the ending made it so damn pretty, even Ali himself would be impressed. You watch those movies about sports and you know how it goes; a runner in scoring position or maybe not, but the count is usually the same. 2 outs, 2 strikes and one chance to win the game. The only thing different in the case of the CU/NU game was that there was one strike and someone brought a monsoon from Florida for the game. No kidding, it was raining like hell and the wind was blowing like crazy. There's no place like home, there's no place like home. WHERE'S TOTO?????
So, you got the count, Joe Simokaitis at bat, Adam Riddle pinch-running at second and the game is tied at 5 a piece. I was up in a sky box (no, I didn't sneak in) and we were protected from the elements, but this game was going to be over after this at-bat no matter what Simo did, so he better damn well do something.
A liner over short and Adam comes pounding around third and streaking for home. Now, I have to be truthful, from my first glance, I thought he was out, but they called him safe and at that moment, I just didn't care. You wouldn't believe the mayhem that took place on the field as the baseball players were going nuts, jumping on each other, running around in the rain like little kids and us crazies in the stands were doing the same. You can't make stuff like this up. Nobody would believe that the count was like that and throw a hurricane into the mix, it's just not going to happen. But it did and NU sent CU packing back to Omaha.
Oh, there was this little thing about a brawl that nearly took place. Some Creighton players were crying about coach Mike Anderson allegedly bumping one of the CU players, which sparked the entire thing. Chest bumping, name calling, finger pointing. Damn, that reminds me of my wedding. Gets me right here every time. *sniff*
Anyway, it was almost on, all we needed was Buffer on the mic. Things calmed down though and NU players went back to running around on the field and remember, the rain is still falling worse than my stock portfolio. There I am running to my car, still in disbelief to the drama, but as I was running by the home dugout, mother nature decided to add an expletive to an already dramatic event, hail. That sent everyone heading for cover, the players heading for the dugout and it was over. No, seriously, it was over and not just the game, but the weather. Even before I got to my car, it wasn't even raining a drop. Talk about weird.
So, that game turned out to be the spark for NU and no, the pitching didn't get much better, but the bats sure did. Bolt's average went steadily up, Morris was on a tear and everyone on the team seemed to be hitting more than Zsa Zsa Gabor gets facelifts. Ok, maybe not quite that much.
The only real hiccup from the CU game until the CWS was a loss to the Jayhawks. I know what happened though. Roy Williams had a perfect game plan, getting the offensive boards and Boshee was unconscious from three-point land.
Anyhoo, NU actually found a streak that took them all the way into the Big XII conference tournament and lasted up until the final game where they lost a shootout against Texas. That shootout would become sort of an omen for NU and not a good one.
Regional time and NU is hosting. Bringing them all into Haymarket for the first time and the crowds were rabidly red, fanatically loud and ready to cheer NU on to the CWS. Richmond's pitching was the story of the series, though it didn't get them any farther than Lincoln. For the first two days, NU split with the Spiders, only a brilliant performance by the Heaving Hawaiin, Shane Komine kept UR in check the first game, but Aaron Marsden couldn't follow suit the next. For the last game, NU slammed 11 runs across, accentuated by Justin "Slammin" Seely's grand salami that put NU back onto I-80 heading 60 miles east.
It wasn't pretty for most of the latter half of the year, but the bats took care of business and the pitching was good..........at times. Good enough for NU to make another run at CWS glory.
Well, as Paul Harvey says, you know the rest of the story, NU getting throttled by Clemson and South Carolina bats, but doing a lot of damage themselves to equally struggling pitching staffs. For an NU fan, it was about as frustrating as it gets, watching one lead after another disappear or seeing NU come so close only to lose momentum and the victory from late-inning hitting heroics by either the Tigers or the GameCocks.
You might as well have stuck pins in my eyes, it would have been preferable to watching the pitching staff implode as it did. And it's not just that NU didn't make it any farther than it did the year before, but to beat yourselves, it's much worse than getting beat by an obviously better team. Nebraska was the better team in either of those games, but just not when it counted the most.
Ya think it's all sad songs and stories of what was lost? Don't even think about it. Sure, the ending stunk, but remember, NU wasn't even supposed to be here. Nebraska was supposed to fight and maybe contend for a conference title, but little else.
On top of that, those pitching debacles weren't products of inability, in most of those cases, they were of youth. Youth with incredible talent. Aaron Marsden, Brian Duensing, Phil Shirek, all loaded with potential just needing a little time to develop and yes, mature.
You can take whatever you want out of the year that you decide to, but it should be all good. NU is going no place but up, because Van Horn has made this a team that doesn't have to rebuild, in the typical fashion of it's big brother in Memorial, it's going to simply reload.
So, forget about what happened at the end. Ok, you can't forget about it, but put it in perspective. Most of those kids (yes, they are still just kids) didn't know where they were. Regardless of leadership, there's nothing like actually being there and each had to learn it their own way. For one player after the other, it's the time where they learned what it was like to be that close and yet, so far away. It sucks, but when you make it, there's no feeling like it in the world. You know it's what they want and you know that this coming season, they will have even more veterans than youth.
It's all good for the NU baseball team. It's all good for the future.