Big bodies and booming home runs are Darin Erstad’s memories of Minnesota American Legion baseball. The former major leaguer turned Nebraska coach grew up playing against and admiring that talent as a Jamestown, N.D., native, and now he’s found a way to benefit from it.
Nebraska won the hearts of four top Minnesota prospects in the 2013 recruiting class, including that of Ryan Boldt, touted as a possible MLB first-round draft pick at one time, and Co-Metro Player of the Year Max Knutson.
Two more metro area standouts are expected to be a part of the Huskers’ incoming 2015 recruiting class.
“I remember playing Legion ball and always facing good teams from Minnesota. Always,” Erstad said emphatically. “Coon Rapids would come to town, and they’d have guys raking all over the place. You always remembered playing them and they caught your attention. … There are a lot of great players in Minnesota on a very consistent basis. Big, physical, athletic kids.”
Center fielder Boldt (Red Wing), lefthander Knutson (Mounds View), infielder Matt Leuty (Totino-Grace) and catcher/infielder Beau Fandel (Forest Lake) were the 2013 foursome that reminded Erstad of the special talent he used to see as a teenager.
Erstad said he also worked hard at getting Coon Rapids’ Logan Shore, who shared the Metro Player of the Year award with Knutson. But Shore committed to Florida and has become one of the top pitchers in the SEC.
Lakeville North infielder Angelo Altavilla has signed with Nebraska, and Hopkins senior pitcher Robbie Palkert has committed to go there.
There could be as many as five Minnesotans on the Cornhuskers next season. (Fandel transferred to St. Cloud State after his freshman season.)
“We love Midwest kids, but more importantly it’s finding those kids with the blue-collar work mentality.”
Boldt has emerged as arguably Nebraska’s top player as a sophomore. The leadoff hitter tops the team with a .344 average, 75 hits and nine stolen bases. He had a rare bad night with three strikeouts in Wednesday’s first-round 3-2 loss to Illinois and sat out of Thursday’s season-ending 9-7 loss to Michigan State because of an injured foot.
Knutson’s strong arm earned him the opportunity to be the team’s No. 3 starter early this season, but accuracy issues cost him the job and he threw just 19⅓ innings in 10 appearances, while striking out 14 batters, walking 11 and maintaining a 2.33 ERA. Leuty had just one at-bat this season.
Red Wing native Pat Kelly, the Twins’ 12th-round pick in 2014, is also a Nebraska product and Boldt’s cousin.
“It’s a great class of Minnesota guys that came in and we’re meshing really well together and grinding to make something happen here,” Knutson said. “I know [Nebraska is] still out recruiting in Minnesota and trying to get the best players they can.”