Michael Pritchard still carries a fondness in his voice for the three words that changed how he viewed hitting.
Opposite-gap react. But before Will Bolt explained to him what that meant, the new Nebraska hitting coach had a question for the sophomore outfielder in the fall of 2011. Would he rather hit .400 with no home runs or .280 with two?
Easy, Pritchard replied. He’d take the better batting average in a heartbeat.
So they got to work. Bolt taught how to keep a flat swing through the opposite side of the strike zone, helping Pritchard send liners into the outfield gaps. Don’t even think about pulling the ball right now, the coach instructed. Master this first.
Results followed quickly in 2012. The Omaha Creighton Prep grad saw his average increase 83 percentage points to a team-best .387 in 57 games. His slugging percentage jumped from .315 to .434 and his on-base percentage rose 54 points to .447. By the time his career ended in 2014, he was a three-time All-Big Ten selection. He went on to play in the St. Louis Cardinals organization.
“I credit Coach Bolt totally with that transformation,” Pritchard said. “He gave me a shot at pro ball because we worked so hard on staying flat through the opposite gap. But he also literally taught me how to pull a baseball. Did I do it at a super high level? No. But I did it enough where I had some pop and could drive in some runs.”
Members of Nebraska’s 2012 team still rave about how Bolt transformed the offense when he arrived under new coach Darin Erstad as the Huskers transitioned from the Big 12 to the Big Ten. Scoring jumped from 5.4 runs per game (163rd nationally) in 2011 to 7.1 (eighth). On-base percentage and slugging percentage also spiked for the group that remains Nebraska’s best-producing offense in the last 16 years.
Now Bolt is returning as Nebraska’s 24th head coach. What can he bring to a Husker attack that dipped to 5.8 runs per game (140th) this spring and hasn’t finished in the top 50 since Bolt left for Texas A&M following the 2014 season?
Plenty, his former pupils say.
Josh Scheffert still laughs that he had no concept of swing mechanics or plate strategy as a sophomore in 2011. His see-ball-hit-ball approach resulted in a .220 average and .286 OBP in 43 games.
But Bolt opened his eyes to new possibilities. He learned how to think about swinging in terms of horizontal planes and how to study and diagnose his own swing on video. In the fall, Bolt would encourage Scheffert and other hitters to experiment with batting stances, grips and approaches. In the spring, he emphasized the mental side — what pitch to look for in certain counts and where it might be thrown.
“I had been trying to react to pitches instead of anticipate pitches,” Scheffert said. “That was a huge, huge emphasis for all of us there. I can just remember certain times where Bolt would say something drastic and I would just be like, ‘Man, why didn’t I think of that?’”
Scheffert broke out that spring with a .358 average while boosting his slugging by 219 points (to a team-best .559) and OBP by 124 points (to .410). Other hitters like Chad Christensen, Cory Burleson, Kale Kiser and Kurt Farmer all saw their averages and/or slugging totals rise in Bolt’s first year as well.
“It was immediate; it was a winner’s mentality,” said Burleson, a former catcher who is now an attorney in Los Angeles. “We were going to be aggressive, and we had one job there and that was to win.”
Indeed, multiple ex-Huskers recall the competitive culture Bolt nurtured in everything from fall workouts to academic performance. The goal, Bolt often reminded, wasn’t to hit the ball hard or get on base. It was to beat the other team.
How Bolt went about it was fun, players say. He defined roles for hitters early on — they were either speedy/on-base types, power bats or a blend of both. All had their duties in an offense that didn’t steal much but pushed the envelope by bunting for singles, executing hit-and-runs and generally keeping the defense uncomfortable.
Bolt also offered specific insight for each batter. Burleson kept his same mechanics but benefited greatly from a simplified plan at the plate. Pritchard improved by spending hours in the cages while Bolt would flip him balls or feed a pitching machine.
“There’s nothing he won’t do for his players,” said Pritchard, who was an NU graduate manager this spring. “And I think our guys are really, really going to enjoy having him around. It’s going to be really good for them, that’s all I can say.”
Said Farmer: “He never had excuses. I think he just gave us the confidence. The guy has a lot of confidence in himself and what he does, and I think that reflected toward the whole team.”
Scheffert recalled a fall practice when he sailed four straight throws from third base and Bolt calmly told him to “get more athletic” in his legs. Scheffert, now an assistant at Nebraska Wesleyan who is also involved in youth baseball in Lincoln, shared that exact advice with a young shortstop Saturday who had the same problem.
And when Bolt says toughness is his top priority in a team, players know he means it. Some workouts left the Huskers throwing up and barely able to walk afterward. And yet they grew close — many of them texted their congratulations Friday after his hire and have stayed in touch after graduation.
“That dude is a Husker through and through,” Pritchard said. “This is where he wants to be, this is where he’s wanted to be. He went down to the SEC, but now that he’s back, I’m excited for him and his family. He’s going to be a great fit, and I’m excited to see what he’s going to do here in the next couple years.”