Originally Published: April 19, 2012

Erstad has Huskers in contention in Big Ten

By Walter Villa
Special to ESPN.com

Nebraska outfielder Michael Pritchard, who grew up in Omaha rooting for the Cornhuskers, said this weekend's series against No. 17 Purdue is his school's biggest set of games since it last made an NCAA regional in 2008.

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Juan DeLeon /Icon SMIDarin Erstad took over as head coach of Nebraska this season and has the Cornhuskers in the hunt for an NCAA tournament bid.

"I think we'll get 20,000 fans combined for the three games," said Pritchard of the series, which will be played in Lincoln. "It's going to be out of control. It's going to be fun to play in a series that matters this much."

Third-place Nebraska (25-13, 7-5) would tie Big Ten leader Purdue (29-5, 10-2) if they are able to sweep the series. Then again, Purdue has won nine games in a row and hasn't lost a series all year.

The most interesting matchup will be Purdue's pitching -- best in the conference on the basis of its 2.91 ERA -- against Nebraska's offense, which ranks No. 1 in the league (7.7 runs).

Pritchard, who hits leadoff, is fourth in the league in batting average (.391) and second in runs (35). He ignites an offense that also includes Josh Scheffert (.379), Pat Kelly (.358) and Richard Stock (.357).

In addition, Chad Christensen leads the league in RBIs and runs scored, Scheffert is tied for the top spot in homers (7) and Rich Sanguinetti is third in RBIs.

First-year head coach Darin Erstad, who was a two-time All-Star during his 14-year major league career, credits associate head coach Will Bolt for Nebraska's improved offense.

"Coach Bolt has done a fantastic job in getting our hitters to believe in our approach of having a balanced offense," said Erstad, 37. "We want to be able to bunt and hit and run but also hit the long ball and run the bases aggressively. We want to put constant pressure on opposing pitchers."

Erstad, who won three Gold Gloves as a big league outfielder, caught the final out of the 2002 season, helping the Anaheim Angels win the World Series.

He also won a national championship at Nebraska in 1994 -- in football. He was the Huskers' punter, averaging 42.6 yards, good for 14th best in the country.

"I had the best seat in the house for Nebraska football games," Erstad joked. "I got to run out there and somewhat help the team, but it was great to see Tom Osborne win his first national title."

Erstad's real talent, of course, was in baseball. In 1995, he led the Big Eight in hitting (.410) and added 19 homers and 79 RBIs. He was the first overall pick in '95, drafted by the Angels.

Pritchard said Erstad has made a huge difference in Nebraska baseball.

"He brings a winning mentality to our program," Pritchard said. "We have a bunch of guys who have never been to an NCAA regional, but he and our other coaches are making us believe we can get there."

Since the offense seems to be a given, the key to the Huskers reaching the postseason could be the pitching. The bullpen, led by closer Travis Huber, lefty Aaron Bummer and right-handers Dylan Vogt and Ryan Hander, has been solid.

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Mike Janes/Four Seam Images/AP ImagesPurdue's hold on first place in the Big Ten standings will be put to the test during this weekend's visit to Nebraska.

The rotation, though, has been in flux. The Huskers have tried eight starting pitchers this year, including Tom Lemke, who had offseason surgery to remove blood clots in his shoulder.

Lemke has made seven starts this season (3.93 ERA) but has since been relegated to the bullpen.

"He has no discomfort, but he got fatigued, and his velocity dropped," Erstad said. "We probably threw him too much too soon. We backed him off and will probably throw him shorter in the bullpen."

With Lemke out of the rotation for now, Erstad hinted that the search for consistent starters continues.

"It's an open competition," Erstad said. "We're still looking for guys to step up."

Those issues aside, Erstad said he is thrilled to be the Huskers' coach. He and his wife, Jessica, bought a house in the Lincoln area five years ago, while he was still in the big leagues, with the intention of putting down roots in the city.

"We were going to live here regardless," Erstad said of the family, which includes two sons and a daughter. "This university has been the most special thing in my life, outside my family. I absolutely love it.

"To be able to work with kids and see them progress is pretty powerful stuff. But our goal is to win Nebraska's first national title [in baseball]. It's not a pipe dream. The blueprint is there, and we want to prove it can be done."

Places to be this weekend

By Eric Sorenson
Special to ESPN.com

1. No. 12 Miami (26-11, 12-6 ACC, No. 17 RPI) at No. 2 Florida State (30-7, 16-2 ACC, No. 2 RPI)
FSU UM Dick Howser Stadium, Tallahassee, Fla.

It's arguably the biggest rivalry in college baseball. For the longest time, these two programs wouldn't even shake hands. The Hurricanes have the 12th-ranked pitching staff in the country with a 2.81 ERA, which features Steven Ewing (4-0, 1.95) and Eric Whaley (3-2, 2.56). The key will be how well it can pound the strike zone as the Hurricanes' defense is definitely shaky at best. The Noles play at a great comfort level at home, so if they get their crowd into it, the Canes will have a tough mountain to climb.

2. No. 4 LSU (31-7, 11-4 SEC, No. 16 RPI) at No. 3 Kentucky (33-5, 11-4 SEC, No. 5 RPI)
UK LSU Cliff Hagan Stadium, Lexington, Ky.

In their own way, these are two of the bigger surprises in the country. LSU looked average early on compared to the elite form it's shown of late, having won 14 of 15 games, including series wins over Arkansas and Florida. And of course, nobody saw the Wildcats' 33-5 start coming. Once again, it'll be the battle of a great offense -- UK hits .317 -- against a burgeoning pitching staff -- LSU has a 2.96 ERA with an SEC-best 338 K's.

3. No. 9 Baylor (32-7, 15-0 Big 12, No. 6 RPI) vs. No. 5 Texas A&M (28-9, 9-3 Big 12, No. 13 RPI)
A&M BU Pat Olsen Field, College Station, Texas and Baylor Ballpark, Waco, Texas

This is the series everyone in Big 12 country has been waiting to see. Are these Bears all they're cracked up to be? Can the Aggies put together a complete weekend? If things get tight, the Bears have won 10 of their 21 consecutive wins by one or two runs. Each of the Aggies' past four losses have been by the same amount. Once again, the big key will be how Michael Wacha ( 5-0, 2.42) does in the opener. He must be on his game and match BU's Josh Turley (5-0, 2.02) pitch for pitch.

4. Arizona State (24-13, 9-6 Pac-12, No. 29 RPI) at No. 10 Stanford (22-10, 5-7 Pac-12, No. 15 RPI)
Stanford ASU Sunken Diamond, Palo Alto, Calif.

One thing is for sure: the Cardinal need a wake-up call. They've gone from being a No. 1 ranked team to one looking to be losing its grip on a No. 1 seed. Any more lost weekends and we could be looking at a Stanford team losing its hosting assignment in June. Hard to believe, but it's possible. They'll be dealing with the loss of SS Lonnie Kauppila for the season after the sophomore injured his knee. That Cardinal order will face the No. 3 ranked pitching staff in the nation in ASU.

5. No. 7 UCLA (25-8, 10-5 Pac-12, No. 3 RPI) at No. 21 Oregon State (24-11, 6-6 Pac-12, No. 35 RPI)
OSU UCLA Goss Stadium, Corvallis, Ore.

The Beavers have been on the fringe of the national spotlight this season, but this is their chance to get back in the conversation. The streaky Beavers will need their most complete offensive weekend of the season, instead of leaning on Tyler Smith (.425) and Michael Conforto (.357). But it's also a huge test for their arms staff, which isn't a dominating unit (just 235 K's). They'll take on a Bruins order that hits .317.

6. No. 17 Purdue (29-5, 10-2 Big Ten, No. 10 RPI) at Nebraska (25-13, 7-5 Big Ten, No. 71 RPI)
NU PU Haymarket Park, Lincoln, Neb.

When the Cornhuskers went to Ohio State and won two of three, the stakes got raised for this series. Although the Big Red don't have a great RPI, this is their chance to make a huge impression on the selection committee. Two great offenses face off as Purdue hits .324 (No. 6 nationally) and the Huskers hit .317 (No. 10). The pressure falls on Purdue, since mid-major teams aren't given much rope for weekend losses in games they are favored to win.

7. East Carolina (26-11, 8-3 C-USA, No. 25 RPI) at No. 13 Rice (28-11, 9-3 C-USA, No. 18 RPI)
ECU Rice Reckling Park, Houston

This is the second of three arduous road trips for the Pirates in C-USA play, having already lost a series at UCF and still having to go to Southern Miss in mid-May. ECU sits a half-game out of first place, which is shared by the Owls and UCF. The Rice offense is finally starting to match its stellar pitching with the big three of Jeremy Rathjen (.372), Christian Stringer (.358) and Michael Fuda (.319), and having come off a 5-4 win over No. 5 Texas A&M.

8. No. 23 Louisville (26-11, 8-4 Big East, No. 52 RPI) at South Florida (26-12, 10-2 Big East, No. 89 RPI)
USF UL USF Baseball Stadium, Tampa, Fla.

This might be the moment the Bulls' baseball program has been waiting for. As leaders of the Big East, they can put some room between themselves and the Cardinals and judging by the RPI for each team, they both could use some style points here, too. Since the beginning of Big East play, USF is 12-4 overall. Meanwhile, the Cards have put their offensive struggles behind them, scoring double figures in six of their past nine wins, including Tuesday's 21-4 win over Indiana.

9. No. 14 UCF (31-8, 9-3 C-USA, No. 21 RPI) at Tulane (26-11, 5-4 C-USA, No. 90 RPI)
Tulane UCF Turchin Stadium, New Orleans

Judging by the RPI numbers, this is a huge series with postseason ramifications and the Green Wave really need it. The Knights hope to maintain their contention for a home regional, but Tulane must begin its climb into at-large position this weekend. They jumped from No. 129 to No. 90 after wins over UAB and Southeastern Louisiana last week, so it's a team with some momentum.

10. Kansas State (19-18, 3-9 Big 12, No. 109 RPI) at Missouri (18-17, 3-9 Big 12, No. 117 RPI)
Mizzou KSU Taylor Stadium, Columbia, Mo.

It's not that this is such a marquee matchup, but it's on the list because of what's at stake. Both teams are tied in the Big 12 basement at the moment, so the loser falls further behind in making the field of eight for the Big 12 tournament. We'll see if that new student section at Taylor Stadium, the Tigers on Deck, will have any effect.

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