March 29, 2012

Pritchard has the leadoff spot locked down

In the bottom of the sixth inning of Nebraska's 6-3 win over Kansas State Tuesday night, leftfielder Michael Pritchard led off the frame with a groundout to first.

The crowd groaned. The Huskers were trying to tack on insurance runs, and every base runner would have helped. Having your leadoff hitter tap out to the pitcher wasn't exactly going to get the offense going.

But hitting coach Will Bolt didn't have a problem with it at all. He obviously would have loved if Pritchard had reached base, but the end result didn't make it a wasted at-bat.

By Bolt's estimation, the sophomore saw seven or eight pitches while at the plate. Regardless of what he was able to do after that, Pritchard's at-bat accomplished something.

"You take something away from the pitcher when you do that," Bolt said. "He's a catalyst for us. He's a tough guy to strike out. He knows the strike zone and he barrels a lot of balls off."

None of this is to say that Pritchard's only use is wearing down the opposing pitcher. The guy can really get on base.

Pritchard is batting .398 this season and is second on the team with a .465 on-base percentage. His ten walks are tied for third-best on the squad.

All these stats make him the ideal leadoff hitter, but it took the coaching staff a few weeks to pencil him in there permanently. Coach Darin Erstad commonly batted senior Kale Kiser in the top spot at the beginning of the season. While his on-base percentage is very high (.447), Kiser's .224 batting average didn't make him a realistic choice at leadoff.

Pritchard, meanwhile, had been hitting third. But juniors Chad Christensen and Richard Stock had established themselves as RBI machines capable of handling the middle of the order. The coaches tried Pritchard at the leadoff spot a few times before basically handing him the position for the last three weeks.

Since March 10, Pritchard has been penciled in the leadoff role all but once. The Huskers are 12-3 this season when he hits first.

"I'm way more comfortable in the leadoff role," Pritchard said. "When you're hitting third, you're way more worried about RBIs. You put more pressure on yourself. At least I did anyway. Leading off comes naturally. You work counts and just put the ball in play and see what happens."

Even though his RBI opportunities aren't as plentiful as they once were, Erstad sees Pritchard as a player perfectly capable of coming through with a run-scoring hit should the chance arise, making him a versatile leadoff man.

"He's a good hybrid," Erstad said. "He's a good leadoff hitter, but if he needs to drive a run in, he can drive a run in."

The Huskers will need Pritchard to continue his leading ways if they are to score a sweep at Northwestern (8-14, 1-2) this weekend. The Wildcats' starters boast a 4.05 team ERA, good for fifth in the Big Ten. They walked 68 batters in 22 games and have allowed opponents to hit .306 against them.

Pritchard will get his opportunities to help the team. And he's accepted that sometimes that means he doesn't even need a hit to have a successful plate appearance.

"Obviously, I want to get hits and get on base," he said. "But if I get eight pitches in an at-bat, that's eight more pitches the guy has thrown and that's eight more pitches that the other guys are seeing. It's a win-win for the team."

Weekend matchups
Friday - 3 p.m.: Junior RHP Tom Lemke (2-2, 4.05 ERA) vs. senior RHP Francis Brooke (1-1, 1.77)
Saturday - 1 p.m.: Soph. RHP Jon Keller (3-0, 4.64) vs. freshman RHP Brandon Magallones (4-0, 3.90)
Sunday - 1 p.m.: Soph. LHP Zach Hirsch (3-1, 4.63) vs. junior RHP Zach Morton (0-5, 3.41)

Scouting Northwestern

***Friday's matchup with the Huskers will be Northwestern's first home game of the year. The Wildcats started the season with 22 straight road contests. That being said, they don't have much of a home advantage. Rocky Miller Park features just 600 stadium seats.

***The Wildcats aren't very aggressive on the base paths, as their 16 stolen base attempts suggest. However, when they do run, they tend to be successful. They've stolen safely 11 times.

***Northwestern is one of the nation's worst fielding teams. The Wildcats have 38 errors so far this season and their .957 fielding percentage ranks 217th out of 291 teams nationally. They are 3-8 when they commit two or more errors.

***The Wildcats are 4-6 when they score five runs or more.

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