The last time the Cal baseball team ventured to Nebraska, it became a local favorite overnight.
The Bears were riding the wave of momentum that carried them into the College World Series. Their story of battling back from elimination and seemingly insurmountable late-game deficits endeared them to the Omaha natives, who adopt a team when no local schools are competing in the Series.
When head coach David Esquer’s club crosses over into the Husker State on Friday, it doesn’t expect such a warm welcome. The crowd at Hawk Field in Lincoln, Neb., will be decidedly behind Nebraska as it hosts No. 25 Cal in a four-game series starting Friday at 11:35 a.m.
“The last time we were (in Nebraska), we were in Omaha and it was a good feeling for a lot of our players,” Esquer said. “I’m sure we’ll have some of those similar feelings just going out to the Midwest.”
This series marks the first weekend homestand for the Huskers, who drew a crowd of over 4,000 at their 9-6 home opening win on Tuesday against Kansas State.
Coming off a 30-25 record and ninth place finish in the Big 12 last year, Nebraska started fresh with a new head coach. Former Major League All-Star Darin Erstad leads the Huskers in their inaugural foray into the Big Ten Conference in his first year at the helm of his alma mater.
Nebraska (8-4) opened the season getting swept by now-No. 24 Gonzaga but have bounced back to win eight of its last nine.
Outfielder Chad Christensen leads the Huskers’ offense with 12 RBIs and two homers on his .408 batting average. Senior Kale Kiser is also hot coming into the weekend, having smacked his first two homers of the season earlier this week and standing just behind Christensen with nine RBIs.
“Go to a big stadium in front of a big crowd — that’s going to be good. Quality opponent,” Esquer said. “We try to pride ourselves on getting comfortable on the road. We gotta win on the road if we’re going to be any type of playoff team.”
Esquer will send preseason All-American left-hander Justin Jones to the hill on Friday, with sturdy senior Matt Flemer following on Saturday.
The Cal skipper said Devon Rodriguez, who has idled this season with a knee injury,
will see some action at the designated hitter slot this weekend. Rodriguez, the Most Outstanding Player of last year’s Houston Regional, should give some added pop to the middle of the Bears’ lineup.
Cal’s offense, currently hitting .427 as a team, has regained some confidence it lost two weeks ago at Long Beach, thumping a lowly Lehigh squad this weekend and burning a respectable Creighton staff on Tuesday for seven runs on 14 hits.
Where the Bears need help is in the field. The Cal defense has been a glaring weakness, tallying a staggering 20 errors over 11 games.
“Just defensively, we need to pick things up,” said center fielder Chad Bunting. “Our swings are looking good. You don’t win games very often when you play defense like that.”