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June 11, 2008

Nebraska baseball fans have that dissatisfied feeling again – the feeling that comes when you feel like you've been robbed of something you had coming to you.

Cornhusker fans, like fans of most successful college sports programs around the nation, I suppose, tend to be a bit possessive of their teams. They've earned that right — at least in football, baseball and volleyball — because of the faithful way they've supported those teams. And the fans who packed Hawks Field for the NCAA Regionals left in a very dissatisfied mood after watching their team get roughed up by lowly Oral Roberts in an elimination game May 31.

They left quietly. They didn't boo, at least not noticeably. Husker fans usually don't boo their team (although they've been known to make exceptions in dire emergencies, such as last fall, and even then it was mainly directed at Bill Callahan and his coaching staff).

It wasn't just the fact that the season had ended for the Nebraska baseball team, it was the way the Huskers collapsed in the finale, almost without a fight. That doesn't sit well. And Coach Mike Anderson knew it. At least, he was a bit defensive afterward. Maybe he heard somebody yell something from the stands. Or maybe he reads the internet blogs.

The Huskers really didn't deserve any abuse from their fans. They had played over their heads most of the season, and turned in a 40-win campaign. Not bad for a team that had just three first-team all-Big 12 honorees and only one player (pitcher Aaron Pribanic) taken in the top eight rounds of the Major League Baseball Draft.

Grand Island native Johnny Dorn set a new career record for wins, picked up the Huskers' only victory in the Big 12 tournament and pitched with heart and determination in the Huskers' 3-2 loss to eventual champion Cal-Irvine in the winner's bracket game May 30.

But aside from Dorn, it wasn't a good last couple of weeks for Nebraska baseball. In that time span, not only did the Cornhuskers fade away from the NCAA Regionals, but former Huskers Alex Gordon and Joba Chamberlain suffered through their own private doldrums for their respective major league clubs.

Perhaps Gordon's low point was his 0-for-7 performance during the Royals' 15-inning loss to the Chicago White Sox June 4. Gordon, who was hitting above .300 early in May, has seen his batting average plunge almost as fast as his team's winning percentage. The Royals, who were within one game of .500 on May 18, were 15 games below .500 on June 9 and were last in the American League in scoring runs. Gordon was batting below .270.

Chamberlain, who recently was promoted from the New York Yankees' bullpen to their starting rotation, has not yet adapted to his new role. In his first two starts, he left the game in the second and fifth inning, respectively. True, he was under a pitch count and would not have been allowed to go past the middle innings, but he was less than inspiring in his two outings.

Meanwhile, the Yankees were struggling to stay at the .500 mark. That is not enough to satisfy Yankee fans, who obviously have a much longer history of success to fuel their expectations than Nebraska baseball aficianados.

Royals fans would be ecstatic if their team finished at .500 this season. For most of the 1980s and '90s, so would have Nebraska fans.

Most Husker fans suffer in silence. In fact, it's a tribute to the rising expectations which surround Nebraska baseball that its 41-16-1 record is producing even scattered howls of discontent. Maybe someday the NU basketball program will get to this point, where the fans feel cheated if their team makes the Big Dance but falls flat in the first round. I wonder if Doc Sadler enjoys the fact that he's not under as much pressure as Anderson.

Things could be worse. Triple Crown disappointment Big Brown's name could have been Big Red, after all. I'm still optimistic about Husker baseball and its two most famous alumni.

Anderson made some good strides with the program this season, most noticeably in team morale and off-the-field conduct. Consistency was generally good, with the exception of the bullpen, although it seems to be the general consensus that first-year pitching coach Eric Newman did an excellent job.

Anderson's main problem is that the Huskers have run out of gas early in the postseason two of the past three years. The Husker Nation will be watching closely come next May. They likely will be very forgiving indeed if the Huskers are inconsistent before April 15, as long as they finish strong in 2009. Anything less just won't satisfy.

Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He was sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin from 2003-2007, during which time he wrote "Around the Husker Nation," a commentary on NU football. He was a writer and columnist for the North Platte Telegraph from 1984-2002. Before then, he was a student at NU, when the basketball team drew sellout crowds to the Devaney Center and very few attended Husker baseball games.