It got Omaha in springtime. A jewel. We don’t really talk about that much — or as much as we should — given the Nebraska football monolith, the sellout streak, the balloons, the national titles, the Heismans, #Calibraska, and the fan base that stretches its Big Red fingers from Juneau to Key West.
We don’t talk about how adding the Cornhuskers also gave the Big Ten a foothold and a footprint inside the shining diamond that is TD Ameritrade Park. Or how the College World Series is now played in the league’s backyard. Or how they got it as a throw-in, like a free calendar from the car dealer.
We don’t talk about Haymarket Park, the strength and power of the baseball brand, the knowledgeable supporters who actually give a damn, and three CWS appearances since the turn of the century.
We don’t talk about Darin Erstad, a grinder leading grinders, a Major League All-Star waving the flag, proudly, for a league he didn’t grow up in.
“If you look at that last few years, and the Big Ten is really trending in the right direction,” Erstad, the Nebraska baseball coach whose first-place Huskers (30-16 overall, 12-5-1 Big Ten), winners of six straight, host Michigan State (26-19, 8-10) this weekend in the final regular-season home series of the season. “Look at the RPI the last four years.”
We don’t talk about how, without the Cornhuskers, the Big Ten would be to NCAA baseball what the Sun Belt is to men’s basketball, the MAC with more money. According to WarrenNolan.com, the league’s average conference RPI rank from 2007 through 2011, the five springs before the Big Red joined the party, was 13.8 — or 14th among Division I leagues.
In the six years with Nebraska as a member, the average Division I RPI rank has climbed to 8.0. And it’s up to 7.0 over the last three seasons — a jump of seven whole conferences over the five campaigns prior to the Huskers being in the fold.
‘You’re seeing money put into facilities, you’re adding teams, and it’s been fun to be a part of that.’
— Nebraska baseball coach Darin Erstad
“Tom Osborne made the decision, and the others, they know what they’re doing,” former Huskers pitcher Tim Burke — like Erstad, a Nebraska alum and former big-league All-Star — told Land of 10. “(Given) the whole financial deal, they know what they’re doing.”
Erstad knows what he’s doing, too. The Huskers are back in the Top 25 for the first time in two years. They’re at the 30-win plateau for a fourth straight season, something that hasn’t happened in Lincoln since the program hit the mark for 10 straight years from 1999-2008.
“The Big Ten sets up really well for Nebraska,” said ex-Huskers first baseman Pete O’Brien, another MLB alum. “I just think that’s really a great spot for Nebraska. Football is, for sure. And baseball, there’s probably a little (run) of dominance that they’re going to start up there.”
And no time like the present. Holding off second-place Maryland — another Big Ten newbie — in the standings on percentage points (.694 to .667), Erstad’s Huskers are knocking on the door of their first conference title since joining the Big Ten.
And first league crown, period, since winning the Big 12 in 2005.
“I would love to see that (title). It’s just different,” said Burke, an Omaha native. “It’s still an adjustment being in the Big Ten, yeah. Since I was like 4 years old, whether it’s been football or whatever, it’s Big Eight and the Big 12, and those teams, getting into the Oklahoma-Nebraska rivalry. And in baseball, it was us and Oklahoma State, that kind of stuff. So it’s just kind of strange. But I’m excited for them. That (title) would be great.
“They had some down years and Darin now looks to have turned them around, and that takes a little bit of time. So I think he’s got it going pretty well now.”
When they’re right, the Huskers’ blueprint isn’t far off from the Kansas City Royals’ formula of recent title vintage: Airtight defense (tied for second in the Big Ten in double plays turned with 51); timely hitting; killer pitching (3.53 team ERA, second in the loop); and a bullpen that swallows souls for breakfast.
Since Erstad was hired in the summer of 2011 and brought Ted Silva aboard as his pitching coach, the Big Red are 171-10 (.944) when leading after seven innings and 182-5 (.973) when ahead after eight.
We don’t talk a lot about college bullpens, but those are the kind of lockdown numbers that rock hard on any stage. In any league.
“We’ve had eight (Big Ten) teams the last eight years go to regionals,” Erstad said. “We’re seeing greater numbers in our conference than have ever been seen before.
“So it’s exciting, the direction it’s been going. That’s why I hesitate to sit here and analyze it. Historically, it hasn’t been as powerful as a conference (as the Big 12). But you’re seeing money put into facilities, you’re adding teams, and it’s been fun to be a part of that.”
And if the last two weeks in the standings are any harbinger of what’s to come, the fun’s only getting started.