Nebraska ready to face UC-Riverside to open 2017
*** Broadcast note: Friday's games will be available on 1400 (Lincoln) and 590 (Omaha) AM, along with the TuneIn radio app. Saturday's game will be on 1400 and 590 as well, but not available on the TuneIn app. Sunday's game is 1400 only. Other affiliates may choose to pick up the games.
Every game is available to listen on Huskers.com and the official Huskers app.
The Nebraska baseball team heads to Tempe, Ariz., for a season-opening series against UC-Riverside this weekend.
Due to weather concerns in Tempe, the weekend's schedule was restructured after the double-header was originally planned for Saturday. The Huskers will now play two games on Friday, one game on Saturday, and one game on Sunday.
While the Huskers have won three straight season-openers, they haven't come out of the first weekend with a winning record since 2011. Nebraska starts 2017 with 11 straight games away from home.
A pair of former MLB teammates will meet for the coaching matchup. Nebraska's Darin Erstad and UC-Riverside's Troy Percival helped lead the Anaheim Angels to the 2002 World Series title. Erstad says the two talk "every day" and that Percival is one of the smartest baseball minds he's ever been around.
Nebraska last played UC-Riverside in 2008, a four-game sweep for the Huskers. This will mark the second time in four years that the Huskers will start the season at the Angels' spring training stadium in Tempe.
Probable starters (2016 statistics)
Friday, Feb. 18 (2:00 p.m. CT) - RHP Matt Waldron (7-3, 2.87 ERA last year)
Friday, Feb. 18 (immediately following Game 1) - RHP Paul Tillotson (first career appearance)
Saturday, Feb. 19 (1:00 p.m. CT) - LHP Ben Miller (0-0, 0.00 ERA)
Sunday, Feb. 20 (2:00 p.m. CT) - LHP Jake Meyers (6-1, 1.42 ERA)
What to watch for
*** Nebraska is projected by national baseball publications to finish near the top of the Big Ten standings this season. The NCBWA, Collegiate Baseball, and D1Baseball.com all project Nebraska to finish third in the conference, and Baseball America predicts the Huskers will finish second. All major publications have pegged Maryland as the preseason favorite. Nebraska players have made it clear that the main team goal is to host a regional.
*** Junior outfielder Scott Schreiber is back as the team's best hitter after an injury hampered him toward the end of the 2016 season. He finished the year hitting .325 with 16 home runs and 55 RBIs. In a snapshot of his potential, Schreiber went 9-for-10 with four home runs and eight RBIs over a two-game stretch in May.
*** Darin Erstad is rarely gun-shy about playing newcomers, and he has a few this year that should contribute right away. Graduate transfer shortstop Alex Raburn and freshman pitcher Paul Tillotson will both see starting action the opening weekend, and both have earned the coach's trust quickly. Erstad calls Raburn a natural leader with great experience who "knows his swing" and will be an asset on both offense and defense. Erstad said he chose Tillotson to start this weekend because he's physical and "his stuff doesn't fade." Last season, Nebraska was 32-3 when leading after six innings, so it will be important for the starters to go deep into games.
*** Erstad said Saturday will be a "staff day" on the mound, which means he will likely keep Ben Miller's pitch count low. Expect sophomore Robbie Palkert, sophomore Chad Luensmann, and freshman Connor Curry to see significant innings that game and the whole weekend from the bullpen. Even though Miller only pitched 2/3 of an inning last season, keep in mind that utility player Jake Meyers got his first start on the mound on one of the staff days and is now a regular in the starting rotation and a preseason All-American at the utility position.
*** Senior pitcher Derek Burkamper will be available in a relief role for Sunday's game after recently recovering from a shoulder injury. Erstad said he'll need to get his pitch count up before he can get back into the starting rotation.
Know your enemy
*** UC-Riverside went 26-29 a year ago, finishing fifth in the Big West conference with a 12-12 record.
*** The Highlanders return plenty of experience with nine seniors on the roster. However, UC-Riverside hasn't had a winning record since 2011, and the 15-40 season in 2015 is still fresh on the mind of some of these players.
*** D1Baseball.com projects UC-Riverside to finish seventh in a loaded Big West this year. Three teams from the conference - Cal State Fullerton, UC-Santa Barbara, and Long Beach State - are expected to make the NCAA Tournament this season.
*** The Highlanders lost their best hitter from 2016, Vince Fernandez, but return a dangerous slugger in Aaron Cisneros, who tied Fernandez for the team lead in home runs. Like many West Coast teams, they also like to get out and run. Mark Contreras stole nine bases a year ago and is regarded as one of the fastest players in the Big West.
*** UC-Riverside's most experienced returning pitcher is senior Angel Landazuri, who went 5-5 a year ago with a 4.73 ERA. Landazuri finished fourth on the team with 35 strikeouts.