Published Friday, March 15, 2013 AT 3:20 PM / Updated at 6:26 PM
Baseball: Challenging stretch starts at UC Irvine
Jon Nyatawa Omaha World-Herald

This probably isn’t what Nebraska baseball fans want to read, but UC Irvine (ranked just inside the top 30 in three different polls) might just be a tad underrated.

The Anteaters finished 32-25 last year, missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005. So they didn’t have much hype heading into 2013.

But last season they were without catcher Ronnie Schaeffer, starting pitcher Matt Whitehouse and reliever Kyle Hooper — three players who coach Mike Gillespie assumes would have been drafted last summer had their seasons not been cut short by injury. And UCI has its Friday ace (junior Andrew Thurman) back, plus its closer (Race Parmenter) on the roster, too.

Irvine (13-4) did lose two of three at BYU last weekend, exposing a couple potential season-long weaknesses: a controllable offensive attack and occasionally shaky fielding (middle infield defense was Gillespie’s biggest concern going in, though he’s been relatively pleased so far). But the Anteaters are good. And Nebraska will have its hands full during this weekend’s three-game series.

It doesn’t get any easier for the Huskers next week, either.

They play two midweek games at Cal State Fullerton (13-3), which outscored NU 19-5 in a doubleheader sweep last month. Then Big Ten play opens with a three-game series at much-improved Illinois (the Illini have won nine of their last 10 and just swept Baylor in Waco).

Could be a season-defining stretch for Nebraska. Eight games, all on the road, all against quality opponents. If a turnaround is coming (they’ve happened often in the Big Ten), the Huskers need to start making more tangible steps of progress toward that 180-degree shift. Starting now.

For what it’s worth, NU coach Darin Erstad remains optimistic.

“We really haven’t been able to piece it together on all parts of the game, but I know from a baseball standpoint, when that happens, that just means it’s coming,” Erstad said. “Our guys are working their tails off.”

Three quick questions to help preview this weekend’s action in Irvine, Calif., are below. Game one is slated to start at 8:30 p.m. Find an audio link here.

1. How much will Nebraska run? The Huskers stole 10 bases in four games at home, but only attempted two steals last weekend. And there won’t be much margin for error against Irvine’s catcher (Schaeffer), who throws out 75 percent of potential base stealers.

2. Can Irvine’s Connor Spencer be limited? Best-case scenario is to make sure no one’s on base when Spencer comes to the plate, because he’s seeing the ball well (batting .422) and he’ll put pressure on defenses because he doesn’t swing-and-miss often (three strikeouts in 64 at-bats). He’ll be a tough out.

3. When does Michael Pritchard get hot again? He was 1-for-7 in two games Saturday, returning from an oblique injury. The junior went on a 25-game hit streak last year. NU’s struggling offense could use a jumpstart at the top of its order.

About Jon Nyatawa

Jon Nyatawa has covered local sports, primarily Nebraska football, for The Omaha World-Herald since 2008. He and his laptop, cell phone, tape recorder, pen and notebook all live in Lincoln. Follow him on Twitter: @JonNyatawa. Email him here: jon.nyatawa@owh.com. He welcomes feedback.