LINCOLN — Nebraska junior Jake McSteen will take a week to decide how he wants to approach his arm injury, but every option leaves the Huskers without their left-handed Saturday starting pitcher for an extended period.
Nebraska coach Darin Erstad said before Wednesday’s practice that McSteen’s left elbow ligament remains intact, and the team will support whatever course of action the Virginia native wishes to take.
“It’s not a slam-dunk case as it has been with some of those other (injured) guys,” Erstad said. “But he has a decision to make, whether to rehab or have surgery. We haven’t come to that conclusion yet, or he hasn’t come to that conclusion quite yet.”
McSteen logged nine-plus innings this season. He threw 90 pitches across five scoreless frames against Washington State during opening weekend, then went four-plus on 74 throws opposing Oregon State. He was tagged for nine hits and seven runs (six earned) in that outing, leaving in the middle of an at-bat in the fifth while pointing to his elbow.
Junior lefty Nate Fisher (0-1, 5.14 ERA) will fill the Saturday starting slot this weekend at Wichita State, Erstad said.
If McSteen opts for rehab, Erstad said he could “potentially” pitch again this year. The southpaw is already one of 11 other current Husker hurlers who have undergone Tommy John or shoulder operations in their careers. Among those are Robbie Palkert, Chad Luensmann and Connor Curry, who are all out for the season after Tommy John procedures. Redshirt junior Reece Eddins is recovering from the same surgery and is expected back at some point this season.
“You feel for those guys,” Erstad said. “Those are our hardest workers that have been injured, which is just crazy. It’s a brutal game. You’re at the mercy of it. All over the country, my goodness, there’s just guys dropping like flies.
“Sometimes they come in bunches and that’s obviously happened. Nobody’s going to feel sorry for us. This isn’t ‘Woe is me’ or ‘Woe is our team.’ We’ve got to find a way to make it work and ramp up guys that maybe weren’t expected to get a lot of innings early on. They’re going to get thrown into the fire.”
The coach said there will be some “bullpen” days on longer weekends. Nebraska will also be relying more than anticipated on freshman righties Andrew Abrahamowicz, Keegan Watson and Max Schreiber. Same goes for junior right-handers Byron Hood and Mike Waldron, along with junior Mitch Steinhoff — NU’s only lefty relief arm at this point.
Junior righty Zack Engelken will also be a factor if he continues to come along following his first appearance in more than a year last weekend following shoulder surgery.
Junior college transfer and outfielder Nolan Hakel is another possibility as he nears the end of the rehab process from his own Tommy John operation two years ago.
Said Erstad: “We don’t have any time to work them in. It’s ‘Let’s go.’ ”
Hallmark starting strong
Jaxon Hallmark trembled the first time he entered the batter’s box against UC Riverside on opening weekend. Six games later, the true freshman has quickly become one of Nebraska’s most reliable hitters.
The only native Texan on the NU roster went 0 for 4 in his college debut but is 8 for 21 (.381) with three walks and five RBIs since. Still, he said, Division I baseball is a big adjustment. Games are quicker, and everybody is talented enough to make every play.
“My first at-bat in my first game, I was shaking,” said the 5-foot-10, 175-pounder. “I was scared. I’ve slowly gotten better at not being afraid at the plate and slowly moving toward the game that I’m trying to play. But it took some time.”
Since then, he’s gotten a hit off Oregon State ace Luke Heimlich. “You don’t see anything like (him) in high school,” Hallmark said, describing his 94-mph fastball and biting curveball.
Hallmark has remained a fixture in the lineup. He’s manned outfield and third base and is comfortable on the right side of the diamond if necessary.
The newcomer said he had offers to play for New Mexico and New Mexico State out of high school but felt Nebraska was an easy choice because of its coaching staff. Now he’s contributing to a team off to a 5-3 start.
“I expected the game to be this fast,” Hallmark said. “I didn’t expect that I would get playing time this early. But now that I have, I feel like I’ve done a decent job at holding down whatever I’m at. I know I can definitely get better and I’ll keep trying to.”
Hallmark said he views himself as a gap-to-gap hitter who moves runners and uses his speed on the basepaths. Erstad compared his mentality to that of outfielder Mojo Hagge. He only needs to be told something once.
“It’s just the consistency of showing up every day,” Erstad said. “That’s the toughest thing for most young guys to understand is coming every day with your lunch pail and getting to work. He pretty much had that when he got here. So he’s a little bit ahead of the curve.
“Now, can he handle the speed of the college game defensively? Still trying to get him comfortable out there. But at the plate, he’s just grown so much over the last three years and he’s just seeing the ball real well and putting together good at-bats.”
>> Senior Luis Alvarado said he will continue to focus on just pitching during his Friday starts but could come in as a designated hitter or at first base Saturdays and Sundays. He got his first at-bats of the spring against Utah last Sunday, finishing 2 for 5 with a run scored.
Regarding his adjustments as a starter, last year’s co-closer said the aim is to continue building up stamina to get through a lineup multiple times. He went four frames against UC Riverside and six against Utah.
“Six innings is good,” Alvarado said, “but I think the plan is to always strive for nine innings.”
>> The 5-3 start is the best for seventh-year coach Erstad at Nebraska. He said it’s encouraging that even though the Huskers were “suffocated” twice by No. 2 Oregon State last weekend, they bounced back to beat Utah both times.
“Right now we’re not exactly clicking on all cylinders, which I think this time of year, a lot of people say the same things,” Erstad said. “But we’re finding a way to win games not playing our best and that’s a good quality to have.”
>> Erstad said another starting candidate later this season could be Abrahamowicz, though he added the starter is still working to gain back much of the weight he lost battling an infection last fall.