Darin Erstad, Nebraska Cornhuskers

Nebraska Cornhuskers college baseball

Darin Erstad was named the 23rd head coach of the Nebraska Cornhuskers college baseball program – and the fifth since 1947 – on June 2, 2011. Erstad captured Big Ten Coach-of-the-Year honors during his sixth season at Nebraska in 2017. Over his first six seasons, the Huskers have made three trips to the NCAA Tournament and have qualified for the Big Ten Tournament each year. Nebraska is one of just two teams in the Big Ten to qualify for each of the past six league tournaments.

Erstad took over a Nebraska Cornhuskers in 2012 that had failed to qualify for the postseason the previous three seasons and was making a move from the Big 12 to the Big Ten Conference. While the squad fell short of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament in 2012, improvement could be seen across the board. The Huskers captured the Big Ten regular-season crown in 2017 after finishing second three times during Erstad’s first five years. He has also led the Huskers to pair of runner-up finishes at the conference tournament.

Nebraska made its 15th NCAA Tournament appearance in 2017, and its third under Erstad in four years. The Huskers went 35-22-1, which included a 16-7-1 record in Big Ten play. In the regular-season finale, NU dominated against Penn State, 21-3, en route to its first Big Ten regular-season crown, and first regular-season conference title since 2005. Jake Meyers and Scott Schreiber each earned first-team All-Big Ten honors, while Angelo Altavilla and Jake Hohensee each made the third team, and Luke Roskam collected all-freshman team accolades.

Meyers, who went 8-2 with a 3.42 ERA in 14 appearances on the mound and batted .297 in 2017, achieved All-America status from Baseball America, NCBWA and Perfect Game/Rawlings. Meyers also went 20-for-22 on stolen bases. Schreiber led NU’s offense with a .330 average, seven home runs, 15 doubles and 51 RBIs. Altavilla batted .316 with 14 doubles and 39 RBIs. Hohensee went 7-3 with a 4.39 ERA in 14 starts. He struck out 57 batters, tied for the most on the team with Meyers.

During the 2017 season, Erstad became the fifth coach in Nebraska baseball history to surpass 200 wins. After the season, Meyers, Schreiber and Luis Alvarado were each drafted. Meyers, a 13th-round pick by the Houston Astros, signed with the team, while Alvarado and Schreiber elected to return for their senior seasons. Alvarado was a 13th-round pick by the Seattle Mariners and Schreiber was drafted in the 26th round by the Tampa Bay Rays.

The Nebraska Cornhuskers returned to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years in 2016 and it finished 0.5 game behind Big Ten regular season champion Minnesota, who played one less game than the Huskers during conference play. The Huskers were 37-22 on the year, including a 16-8 record during Big Ten play. The Huskers once again played well at Hawks Field, boasting a 21-6 home record. The Huskers played some of their best baseball late in the season, as they were 15-4 over the final 19 games of the regular season, including a season-ending sweep of Indiana at home.

Erstad took a bigger role in the offense in 2016, and the Huskers hit for more power and put pressure on opposing defenses. The Huskers saw improvements in average, doubles, home runs, RBIs and stolen bases. Nebraska’s power saw a big boost as it hit 43 home runs in 2016 after notching 22 in 2015. The Huskers were also more aggressive on the base paths, as their stolen bases jumped from 40 in 2015 to 62 in 2016, including 20 from Ryan Boldt.

Individually, the Huskers saw sophomore Scott Schreiber turn into one of the premier power hitters in the conference in 2016, as his 16 home runs led the Big Ten and his 55 RBIs were one shy of the conference leader. Schreiber earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and was joined by second-team honorees Steven Reveles, Boldt and Chad Luensmann, while Jake Meyers and Ben Miller were each third-team picks. Luensmann was also tabbed Big Ten Freshman of the Year, the first Husker to earn the award.

Luensmann ended the year with 13 saves in 14 chances, which was a freshman record and tied him for the third-most saves in a single season at Nebraska. Nine of his 13 saves came during Big Ten play, which led the conference.

Player development under Erstad continued in 2016, as three Husker juniors heard their names called during the MLB Draft. A 22nd-round pick out of high school, Boldt was taken in the second round and signed with the Tampa Bay Rays, becoming the highest drafted Husker since 2006 when Joba Chamberlain was a first-round pick by the New York Yankees. Junior left-handed pitcher Max Knutson was drafted for the first time in his career when he heard his name called in the 12th round and he signed with the Baltimore Orioles. Miller was drafted for the first time in his career when he was taken by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 32nd round, but Miller turned down professional baseball to instead grow under Erstad for another season. 2016 seniors Reveles (Boston Red Sox) and Colton Howell (Kansas City Royals) were not drafted, but each signed free-agent deals with contracts.

The 2015 Huskers finished the season 34-23 and had four players drafted, including ninth-round pick Tanner Lubach. Along with Lubach, senior Blake Headley was taken in the 20th round by the Chicago Cubs, senior Josh Roeder was taken in the 21st round by the New York Yankees and Howell, a junior, was selected in the 27th round by the San Diego Padres, but returned to Nebraska for his senior season in 2016. Senior Kyle Kubat wasn’t drafted, but signed a free agent contract with the Kansas City Royals.

The strength of the 2015 squad was its pitching staff, which produced a team ERA of 3.12, the lowest by a NU staff since the 2005 College World Series team produced a 2.69 ERA. Led by senior starters Chance Sinclair and Kubat, along with Roeder in the closer role, the Husker produced a 2.61-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The last time a Husker pitching staff produced a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2-to-1 or better was 2008, when NU finished the year with 491 strikeouts to 192 walks for a ratio of 2.56-to-1. Roeder finished his three-year Husker career as NU’s all-time saves leader with 33, topping Brett Jensen’s previous mark of 31. Roeder saved a career-best 15 games in 2015, one shy of tying Jensen’s single-season record of 16.

The Huskers were 21-6 at Hawks Field in 2015, and they opened their home schedule with 11-straight wins, the program’s longest winning streak since 2008 when it won 14 straight games. During Nebraska’s first home weekend series of the year against Florida Gulf Coast, fans set a new non-conference series attendance mark with 17,083 fans over the three-day series, easily topping the previous record of 14,885 against Alabama in 2006.

In 2014 the program returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008 with an at-large bid to the Stillwater Regional. Nebraska went 1-2 at the regional, with both losses coming to perennial power Cal State Fullerton. The Huskers finished second in the Big Ten during both the regular season and at the Big Ten Tournament, with a loss to Indiana in the title game for the second straight season.

Nebraska fans showed their passion for baseball during the 2014 Big Ten Tournament just down the road in Omaha at TD Ameritrade Park. At the championship game between the Huskers and Hoosiers, 19,965 fans passed through the gates to set a NCAA record for a conference tournament game. Not counting the College World Series, it was the second-largest crowd to watch a college baseball game in 2014, topped only on May 13 at Turner Field in Atlanta, when 21,310 fans attended a contest between Georgia and Georgia Tech.

Nebraska was again one of the top offenses in the Big Ten Conference in 2014, ranking 19th nationally in hits (623), 30th in triples (19) and 31st in batting average (.293). Nebraska’s defense was also one of the best units in the country in 2014. With a new starter at first base, third base, shortstop, left field and center field, the Huskers ranked 21st in the country with a .976 fielding percentage.

Three members of the 2014 squad were picked in the MLB Draft, including Pat Kelly (12th, Minnesota), Zach Hirsch (19th, Milwaukee) and Aaron Bummer (19th, Chicago White Sox). It was the first time since 2010 that three Huskers were taken in the first 20 rounds of the MLB Draft. Michael Pritchard also signed a non-drafted free agent contract with the St. Louis Cardinals. On July 27, 2017, Bummer became the 36th Husker to reach the Majors when he was called up by the White Sox. Bummer made his MLB debut that night in a relief appearance against the Chicago Cubs.

During his second year at the helm in 2013, Erstad continued to infuse his hard-nosed, blue-collar work ethic. One of the biggest improvements under Erstad has been the Huskers’ focus on defense. It was evident in 2013, as Nebraska set a school and Big Ten Conference record with a .981 fielding percentage, which ranked second nationally. The Huskers committed just 44 errors in 2013, marking their lowest total going back to 1985. From 2000 to 2012, the Huskers had averaged 71.2 errors per season.

Erstad and the rest of the Nebraska coaching staff tested the Huskers with the 16th-toughest schedule in the country in 2013. The Huskers got off to a rough start at 0-7 and finished the year 29-30, but were just a few wins away from the NCAA Tournament with an RPI of 31.

Nebraska also nearly won its first conference title since 2005, as it finished in a tie for second during the regular season and came within one win of bringing the Big Ten Tournament title back to Lincoln.

After posting a 15-9 record during the conference season, Nebraska entered the 2013 Big Ten Tournament at Target Field in Minneapolis as the No. 3 seed, where the Huskers defeated Michigan, 11-2, in the first round.

Following a second-round loss to Ohio State, the Huskers fell to the losers bracket where they knocked out Minnesota. The following day, Nebraska eliminated the Buckeyes and immediately had to play the top-seeded Indiana Hoosiers. The Huskers kept their season going with a win over the Hoosiers, as Lubach launched a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 11th inning.

The two squads returned to Target Field the following day with the Big Ten Tournament title and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament on the line. Indiana proved too much, as the Hoosiers returned the favor with a 4-3 walk-off win in the bottom of the ninth. The Hoosiers went on to play in the College World Series.

Individually, Chad Christensen developed from a shortstop to an all-conference outfielder. After playing shortstop during his first three seasons, and being a first-team all-conference pick in 2012, Christensen moved to the outfield in 2013, where he was one of three nominees for Big Ten Player of the Year.

Under Erstad, who earned three Gold Gloves during his career, Christensen posted a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage in 124 chances and ranked in the top-10 nationally among outfielders with eight assists. Christensen saw his draft stock rise 10 rounds, as he was picked in the 25th round of the 2013 MLB Draft by the Minnesota Twins after being picked in the 35th round of the 2012 Draft by the Miami Marlins.

During Erstad’s first season in 2012, the Husker offense saw the biggest jump. The Huskers led the Big Ten Conference in six different categories, including home runs (47), RBI (375), runs (413), total bases (916), on-base pct. (.384) and slugging pct. (.445).

The Huskers also made noise on the national scene, as they ranked in the top-20 nationally in seven categories, including top-10 rankings in both batting average and scoring.

After hitting .270 as a team in 2011, the Huskers hit .315 in 2012 to rank eighth in the country. The Huskers also ranked eighth nationally in scoring with 7.1 runs per game after scoring 5.4 runs a game in 2011.

With a more disciplined approach at the plate, NU had 106 fewer strikeouts than it had in 2011, while playing three more games in 2012. The Huskers also produced 150 more hits, drove in 107 more runs and hit 17 more home runs to lead the Big Ten with 47 home runs. No other team in the league hit more than 38 homers.

Pritchard, a sophomore in 2012, continued his development at the plate and posted a 25-game hitting streak during the season-the third-longest streak in school history. For his efforts, he was named a third-team All-American by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association.

Four players from the 2012 team were picked in the 2012 MLB Draft, including 23rd-round picks Travis Huber (Minnesota Twins), Kale Kiser (Chicago White Sox) and Richard Stock (Cleveland Indians), who all signed contracts. Christensen was picked in the 35th round by the Miami Marlins, but chose to return to Nebraska for his senior season in 2013.

A two-time Major League All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner, Erstad spent the 2011 season as a volunteer assistant coach with the Husker program. In his role, he helped lead a pair of Huskers to All-Big 12 honors, including third baseman Cody Asche. Asche became NU’s first position player to earn All-America honors since 2006, as he hit .327 with 12 home runs and produced a school-record 27 doubles en route to second-team All-America honors in 2011.

One of the most decorated players in Nebraska baseball history, Erstad was a first-team All-American and finalist for the USA Baseball Golden Spikes Award in 1995, before embarking on a 14-year career in Major League Baseball. Erstad wrapped up his professional career in the fall of 2009, after playing for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (1996-06), Chicago White Sox (2007) and Houston Astros (2008-09). During his career, he helped the Angels to a World Series title in 2002 and two other playoff appearances. Erstad appeared in 1,654 games, while finishing his career as a .282 hitter with 1,697 hits, 124 homers and 699 RBIs. He was at his best in the postseason, hitting .339 in 29 career playoff games, including a .352 clip during the Angels World Series run in 2002.

The No. 1 overall pick in the 1995 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, Erstad spent the majority of his career playing for the Angels, where he won three Gold Gloves (2000-02-04) and was selected for the American League All-Star team in 1998 and 2000. He is the only player in Major League history to win Gold Gloves as an infielder (2004) and outfielder (2000 and 2002) and the first player in Major League history to win Gold Gloves at three positions (LF, 2000; CF, 2002; 1B, 2004).

His best year came in 2000 when he led the Major Leagues with 240 hits and finished second in the American League with a .355 batting average with 121 runs scored, 39 doubles, six triples, 25 home runs, 100 RBIs, 64 walks and 28 stolen bases en route to winning a Silver Slugger Award. That season, he topped the Angels in seven categories, and set franchise records for average, runs scored and hits. His 240 hits are tied for 13th in Major League history entering the 2016 season and the only player with more hits since 2000 is Ichiro Suzuki, who had 242 hits in 2001.

A two-sport star at Nebraska, Erstad was a first-team All-American and Big Eight Co-Player of the Year as a junior in 1995. In addition to his exploits on the diamond, Erstad, a two-time academic all-conference selection, was also the starting punter for the Huskers’ 1994 national championship football team, helping NU to a 13-0 record.

A native of Jamestown, N.D., Erstad was a 13th-round pick by the New York Mets in the 1992 MLB Draft and earned first-team all-state accolades in four sports (football, hockey, track and baseball) in high school.

Darin, and his wife, Jessica, have one daughter, Jordan, and two sons, Zack and Adam.

About the author, Bill

Bill Ballew has been involved with collegiate and professional baseball since 1983. He has been the Atlanta correspondent for Baseball America since 1991 and has served as the editorial content manager for Baseball The Magazine for more than five years. He is a member of the American Baseball Coaches Association (ABCA), National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA) and the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).