LINCOLN — The custom for a Nebraska pitcher returning to live action after an injury is to have teammates and coaches clap as he takes the practice mound.
Coach Darin Erstad took one look at Chad Luensmann last week and figured this guy didn’t need the cheers.
“When I saw foam out the side of his mouth, he kind of scared me,” Erstad said with a smile. “So I just kind of stayed back and didn’t say anything. There’s some anger there.”
There are plenty of big-picture paths the Huskers can take to improve on last year’s grinding 24-28 campaign that kept them out of the Big Ten tournament for the first time in Erstad’s seven seasons. But perhaps the single most pivotal player for a turnaround is Luensmann, the 2016 Big Ten freshman of the year and former bullpen ace who was ticketed for a spot in the weekend starting rotation before having Tommy John surgery last offseason.
The 6-foot-4, 237-pound junior from Altoona, Pennsylvania, has counted the months crawling by since he first felt pain in his arm during summer ball in 2017. He attempted rehab before going under the knife that winter, then could only watch from the dugout as the Huskers endured their second-worst season by winning percentage since 1975.
Luensmann didn’t throw in the Red-White fall series, either. It wasn’t until last Friday that he finally stepped on a mound and threw to live batters.
“Felt great; it felt awesome,” Luensmann said. “I probably didn’t know what was going on for most of those 15 pitches, but I had a blast out there.”
Nebraska must replace two-thirds of its weekend rotation, and Luensmann is eyeing one of those spots. Fridays are his goal if for no other reason than to be able to set a tone for the team.
Assuming no health setbacks in the next week or so, the man Erstad called “a rabid dog caged up, ready to be released” expects to be on the mound at some point for NU’s four-game series at UC Riverside beginning Feb. 15.
“I’m ready to get out there, they know that,” Luensmann said. “I think Coach Erstad said something that I wanted to throw 150 pitches the first weekend. I know that won’t happen, but I’m eager to get out there and do whatever I can.”
Senior infielder Angelo Altavilla hit against Luensmann in that live session and said the hurler didn’t throw a strike on him. But he’s not worried about the guy who has a 2.55 ERA in 81⅓ college innings and who established the team standard for offseason weightlifting.
“His intensity, it was unmatched,” Altavilla said. “He’s a guy that he loves to dominate people and he’ll let you know about it. I wouldn’t really have it any other way.”
Other notes from the afternoon media session at Memorial Stadium:
» Pitchers Robbie Palkert and Connor Curry also threw live for the first time last week since their Tommy John procedures that kept them out most or all of last year. Both are on track to pitch early in the season.
“Getting the adrenaline and the excitement under control in these last 10 days before we get going is the biggest thing,” Luensmann said. “But everyone’s ready to go and everyone wants to get out there.”
» Erstad answered “nope” to questions about whether he had set ideas for a pitching rotation or batting order. The Huskers have seven to eight pitchers stretched out to be starters, he said. The coach added that he will have a better feel for everything after batters face live pitching this weekend.
“You will probably see a lot of different faces in that first weekend,” Erstad said.
Nebraska at UC-Riverside
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 15
Radio: KNCY 1600 AM, 105.5 FM