April 5, 2012

Pierce, Huskers set for duel with Hawkeyes

When sophomore Brandon Pierce took the mound for his first start of the season against Kansas State on March 27, he was obviously trying to pick up another victory.

But it turns out he was also auditioning for a spot in the starting rotation. Pierce pitched three scoreless innings in the 6-3 victory and backed that performance up with several strong performances since. Coach Darin Erstad said those efforts have earned him a start against Iowa on Saturday.

"This is an open competition. You've got to earn every start," Erstad said. "Those weekend starts are valuable. We gave him a midweek start and he went out and commanded the strike zone and took advantage of it. These guys have to understand that they're going to have to continue to perform if they want to throw on the weekend. Pierce has earned that spot."

Pierce, who made three starts last year, leads the Huskers with 16 appearances and is second on the team with a 1.93 ERA. He said as of now, he doesn't know if any pitch count will be placed on him, but he's willing to give Nebraska everything he's got.

"I don't really know what my body is going to do," Pierce said. "I just know that I'll pitch until they tell me 'you're done.' If that means I'm out there for 100 pitches and I can't feel my arm, that's what I'll do."

Pierce takes the place of sophomore Jon Keller, who'd fallen on hard times as of late. He gave up six runs (although none were earned) in 3.2 innings Saturday against Northwestern. His start before that, he allowed nine hits five runs in four innings against Illinois.

Erstad said the Huskers were giving Keller a break and a chance to "work on some things."

Pierce and fellow starters Tom Lemke and Zach Hirsch appear to have an easier task this weekend against the Iowa offense, which is eighth in the Big Ten with 141 runs - or 102 runs fewer than NU has scored. The Hawkeyes are tied for last in the conference with six home runs and have just 50 extra-base hits overall.

But Iowa's pitching has been solid, as the Hawkeyes own a 3.93 team ERA. Erstad is making sure that his team doesn't overlook Iowa despite its losing record (12-14) and its RPI (222).

"They're going to keep themselves in the game," Erstad said. "Their starting pitchers have played a nice job. It's obviously close by and there are some bragging rights on the line. I expect their best effort."

The Huskers and Hawkeyes faced off once last season, a 7-3 NU win on April 26. But Erstad said there isn't NU can learn about that matchup because it was a midweek game and Iowa wasn't pitching one of its top starters.

The Hawkeyes will toss three left-handed pitchers at the Huskers this weekend. NU hasn't hit lefties as well as righties this season, but didn't have much trouble with Kansas State's Jared Moore, a left-hander, in a 6-0 win Tuesday.

If the Huskers are to continue their winning ways after a rough weekend at Northwestern, they'll likely need a strong performance from Pierce Saturday. He said he's done a much better job keeping the ball down this season and has added a changeup, two factors that have led to his recent success.

"I've thrown strikes and kept the ball down and I've had some success," Pierce said. "When I get hit, the ball is up. When I don't get hit the ball is down. It's that simple, although it's a lot easier said than done."

Weekend probable starters

Friday - 6:35 p.m.: Junior RHP Tom Lemke (3-2, 4.13 ERA) vs. junior LHP Jarred Hippen (2-3, 4.24)
Saturday - 2:05 p.m.: Soph. RHP Brandon Pierce (3-1, 1.93) vs. junior LHP Matt Dermondy (1-3, 4.33)
Sunday - 1:05 p.m.: Junior RHP Tom Lemke (3-2, 4.65) vs. freshman LHP Sasha Kuebel (2-0, 3.18)

Around the horn

***Erstad addressed several injury concerns after practice on Thursday. He said junior Josh Scheffert isn't back at full strength, but is good enough to play. Freshman rightfielder Austin Darby is still dealing with his turf toe injury but started against Kansas State. Erstad said the team will just have to keep an eye on him.

Sophomore outfielder Michael Pritchard suffered a minor shoulder injury when he crashed into the left field wall making a catch on Tuesday, but Erstad said he'll be available to be the designated hitter.

Catcher Sam Stucky is dealing with a shoulder injury and was moved off the active roster. That left senior Cory Burleson as the only true catcher (Richard Stock is available there, but it's not his primary position) until the Huskers activated Taylor Fish, a freshman from Kearney.
"We're planning on redshirting him," Erstad said. "But if need be, he's more than willing to help."

***Erstad is happy in his spot as Nebraska's coach, but it was obvious Thursday that he missed playing professional baseball. The nostalgia hit him particularly hard as it was opening day for many teams.

Erstad played 14 MLB seasons with the Angels, White Sox and Astros.

"It's the greatest day of the year in my opinion. Ever since I was a little kid, I remember that day. It will always have a special place in my heart."
"The whole leading up to it, the expectations of the season, just all the emotions you have… it feels like a playoff game. Then the first inning is played and you start getting in your groove. It's just one of those things that makes you feel warm inside."

Scouting Iowa

***The Hawkeyes are 12-14 but are tied for fifth in the Big Ten with a 3-3 conference mark. Iowa won two of three from Northwestern in their first Big Ten series before dropping two of three this weekend at Indiana. The Hawkeyes are 1-4 on the road overall.

***Iowa closer Nick Brown has four saves in seven appearances this season. He has yet to give up an earned run.

***If Mike McQuillan gets on this weekend, the Huskers will have to watch him. He's seven-for-nine this season on steal attempts.

***Iowa leads the conference in hit-by-pitches (43) and sacrifice bunts (28). However, they are last in total bases (306).

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