Note: if you're so focused on the hoops tourney that you can't even think about this weekend's baseball series with Nebraska for fear of your head exploding into a burnt orange slime, we understand. Just skip this article.
In anticipation of this weekend's big series against Nebraska at the Disch, we emailed back and forth with Jon of Corn Nation to get an inside look at the series from the Husker fan's perspective. He responded with some questions of his own, and here's what we came up with:
40AS: If you could wave a magic wand and produce instant improvement in one specific area of the Nebraska team this year to increase your chances of heading to Omaha, what would it be?
Corn Nation (CN): Better offense. NCAA baseball statistics were recently released. Our pitching and defensive statistics are excellent, nearly all within the top 50. Our team ERA is eighth, as is our hits allowed per innings. Unfortunately, our offensive statistics... are lacking. We're 125th in batting average (Texas is 22nd), 121st in scoring (16th), 91st in runs (9th), and 91st (27th) in hits.
Specifically, we need more power.
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40AS: Who is the Cornhusker player about whom you most often think to yourself, "man, I'm glad that guy is on our team!" Why?
CN: Maybe it's a strength of the team that I won't decide on a specific player. There is pitcher Johnny Dorn with a 1.57 overall ERA. He seems to be the rock of the team with his experience and consistency. He gives us an excellent shot at winning every Friday game which improves our chances of winning each series.
Given our need for power hitting, there's Craig Corriston, who was suspended the first six games of the season due to a minor NCAA violation. He's been picked as Big 12 player of the week for hitting .579 for the week we swept Kansas State, scoring six runs and four RBI. It's important that he continue this pace, especially against the best teams in conference. Then there are Bryce Nimmo and DJ Belftonte. Both can get on base, steal bases, and play great defense.
Nebraska doesn't have a superstar, but seems to be a collection of guys who fit together very well.
40AS: Is six games this year against Northern Colorado enough? Seriously though, do you think Nebraska has benefited from an easy schedule after the first weekend or is this team really that good?
CN: When I saw Northern Colorado six times, I thought, wow... that is a lot. But let's get serious. First of all, Northern Colorado has knocked off Texas A&M twice, and beaten top-ranked Arizona State, so they're not exactly horrible.
Nebraska's schedule was ranked at pre-season as eleventh. Now it stands at sixth, compared to Texas at pre-season (same links) 14th, and current 22nd. Both of those schedules are at the top of college baseball (okay, I was hoping that Texas' would be a lot lower so I could nail your ass on that one. Ha!)
The real meat of the question - "is this team really that good?". I remain cautiously optimistic. The Texas series will tell us where we stand with regards to competing at a high level in conference and that's what really counts. The Big 12 is very strong and very even this season, so every series will count. I don't think that Nebraska has the team to win the Big 12 this season, but as I said, I remain cautiously optimistic.
Nebraska overall doesn't have the talent that Texas has, but we are playing extremely well as a team, something that couldn't be said for the 2007 team. 20 of the 35 players on our team had never taken the field in a Husker uniform before this season. There is something to be said for team chemistry.
40AS: Nebraska has had some real high profile players the last few years (Joba Chamberlin and Alex Gordon come to mind). Has the program seen a real windfall in recruiting because of it?
CN: I don't think that it has had the impact that you'd see in, say, college football, just because of how many baseball players there are in college, farm leagues, minor leagues, foreign leagues... you get the idea. It certainly doesn't hurt, though.
What has helped recruiting is the addition of new pitching coach Eric Newman who previously was head coach at Dallas Baptist. His ties in Texas will pay off. The other thing that's helped is having assistant coach Dave Bingham around. The guy has a wealth of experience at every level.
Our answers to Jon's questions:
CN: If you could wave a magic wand and produce instant improvement in one specific area of the Texas team this year to increase your chances of heading to Omaha, what would it be?
40AS: No question here: the defense. One of the tough things about having such a young team is that, while you sometimes see these flashes of potential and get a sense of just how good these guys are going to be very soon, you also see just how easy it is to make errors when you're not used to the speed and intensity of the college game. All the newcomers have also forced some guys to play out of position, such as Travis Tucker playing 3rd instead of 2nd.
With the schedule being what it is, Texas had just its 4th practice since Opening Day this week, so we hope this week of work will improve the defensive look.
CN: Who is the Longhorn player about whom you most often think to yourself, "man, I'm glad that guy is on our team!" Why?
40AS: This year, that award would have to go to Brandon Belt so far. He's been knocking the cover off the ball, and the guy can pitch! Anytime a Texas fan sees someone who can pitch and be an everyday player, he immediately things about Huston Street. Belt is obviously no Huston (yet) in terms of pitching ability, but he already hits the ball far better than Street ever did. Belt is slugging at a .622 clip with 10 doubles and four dingers while posting a 1.50 ERA in six innings of work. And he's a sophomore.
CN: The last two seasons in a row Texas didn't make it out of their own regional in the NCAA tourney, after winning the CWS title in 2005. Nebraska's failures the past two seasons has had some question our head coach Mike Anderson's abilities. Has Texas failures lead to any "Augie Garrido is past his prime" kind of talk out of Texas fans? Or is his position comparable to that of "Joe Paterno" - the coaching legend that can pick his own time and date?
40AS: It's definitely the latter for the vast majority of Texas fans. The sentiment within the Bunrt Orange Nation community, and to a large extent the Longhorn community as a whole, is that we are really, really lucky to have all 3 of our major-sports head coaches. We love Barnes in basketball for a million reasons, Brown brought us a national championship and runs the football program with class, and Augie may be the easiest to love out of the three. He has produced two national championships and he's such an enjoyable character to have in the athletic program.
CN: Is Augie still complaining about the late start?
40AS: Yes, and we love him for it. See "4th practice since opening day" above.
CN: Has the late start and condensed schedule handicapped the Southern teams such that the Northern teams in the cold climate have the advantage?
40AS: Well, we're not going to say that the Northern teams are at any real advantage, since they are dealing with the condensed schedule too. We believe that the changes have produced exactly their intended effect: the level the playing field for Northern teams against teams from more favorable baseball climates.
The issue for us is that the new system sucks for schools everywhere. College baseball teams need practice days to work out the kinks and get into top form; 18-year-old kids need coaching to improve. They can't just go out and get better with nothing but game situations the way the pros can. We understand, of course, that Nebraska and others have been dealing with a lack of good preseason work forever--we just have to get used to it down here.
CN: I attended the 2005 Texas-Nebraska series at Haymarket Park with my oldest son (then 12). At one point, during the game, a streak appeared running across the outfield. Nobody saw him until the guy was half-way across centerfield. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only time that's happened. It was a special father-son moment that I'll cherish forever.
And your favorite Nebraska - Texas moment would be something that can top that?
40AS: We've got nothing. Well played, sir.