Zach Hirsch has been through just about everything during his collegiate baseball career at the University of Nebraska.
His first season definitely didn't go as planned after undergoing Tommy John surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in February of 2010.
Returning a little more than a year later after a medical redshirt, the former St. Charles North standout pitcher made 13 relief appearances, posting a 2.04 ERA in 17 2/3 innings of work.
As a sophomore, the left-hander made a team-high 13 starts for the Cornhuskers, finishing with a 4-5 record and 5.52 ERA in 60 1/3 innings pitched.
Back to the bullpen for his junior campaign last year, Hirsch sported a 3-2 record in 26 1/3 innings and appeared to be coming into his own as a reliever.
Unfortunately, his season ended prematurely after suffering a broken bone in his right (non-throwing) arm. Hirsch missed Nebraska's final 31 games a year ago.
This story, however, has a happier ending.
Last May, the finance major earned his bachelor's degree from Nebraska and decided to return for his final year of eligibility while attending graduate school.
He also elected to return home to St. Charles last summer rather than play baseball in the Northwoods League (for college players).
"I decided to stay home and had an internship with my dad (medical sales company)," said Hirsch, who earned credits toward his MBA. "Honestly, I think it's one of the best decisions I've ever made."
The 6-4, 220-pounder has saved the best for his last collegiate campaign.
The fifth-year senior has put up some eye-popping numbers this season.
Hirsch, who leads the team in appearances with 23, owns a 4-1 record and minuscule 1.43 ERA for the red-hot Huskers (32-17), who improved to 13-5 in Big Ten Conference play following this past weekend's 3-game series sweep of Penn State.
With Sunday's 8-4 victory, Nebraska clinched a berth in the 8-team conference tournament scheduled for May 21-25 at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha.
In 37 2/3 innings pitched, Hirsch has allowed just 6 earned runs and 25 hits with 11 walks and 40 strikeouts. Opponents are hitting .189 against Hirsch.
"I made a few minor mechanical adjustments over the summer," said Hirsch, who was a 3-time unanimous All-Upstate Eight Conference selection while posting a 17-5 record and 0.99 career ERA for coach Todd Genke at St. Charles North.
"I wanted to use my lower half (of body) more and I dedicated my time in the off-season to getting stronger."
Hirsch, who has been used primarily as a set-up man for Huskers closer Josh Roeder (10 saves), also altered his delivery style from last season.
"I pitch from the stretch only now," he said. "I wanted to simplify things as much as possible. A lot of it comes down to being comfortable on the mound."
Everything is coming together for Hirsch and the Huskers as they head into their last 2 weekends of the regular season.
"The big thing as a baseball player is consistency," said Hirsch. "I think I've shown flashes of it throughout my career."
At 23, Hirsch is the elder statesman on Nebraska's roster.
"I'm the oldest guy on the team by a couple months," he said. "I've always tried to lead by example but I've assumed more of a leadership role on the pitching staff. I'm one of the more vocal guys."
Hirsch admittedly felt a little older recently during Nebraska's 3-game home series against Northwestern when he pitched against St. Charles East graduate/Wildcats freshman outfielder Joe Hoscheit.
"I played against Mike (Hoscheit)," Hirsch said of Joe's older brother who played 4 years at Butler. "I've known the Hoscheits for a long time -- their dad (John) is our family attorney."
Hirsch has also taken a liking to being a reliever -- something he did not do prior to college.
"Initially when I was sent to the bullpen I admit I was kind of dreading it," he said. "Now I love it. It definitely requires a different type of focus.
"You have to be ready to pitch every day," added Hirsch. "You have to have a short memory if things don't go your way the day before. But you also know that you can let it loose for a couple innings."
Last month, Hirsch's name was added to the NCBWA Mid-Season Stopper of the Year watch list (1 of 50 pitchers).
Nebraska, which begins a 3-game road series against Michigan State Saturday, concludes its regular season at home against Illinois (also 13-5 in conference) May 15-17.
Can the Huskers secure an NCAA Tournament bid later this month?
"It's very possible," said Hirsch. "We've got seven games left and I think the magic number for us to have is 35 or 36 wins before the Big Ten Tournament. We're playing good baseball. Making the regionals would be amazing -- we haven't done it in six years."
One thing Hirsch has enjoyed throughout the years at Nebraska is the unwavering support of his family.
"My parents (Dave and Nancy) have been to most of our weekend games," said Hirsch. "I can't express how fortunate I am to have them here (in Lincoln). They make the 7-hour drive on Fridays for our weekend games. That's pretty cool."
Armed with a fastball clocked in the 88-92 mph range to go with a change-up, sharp breaking curveball and slider, Hirsch may have boosted his chances for next month's MLB First-Year Player Draft.
"If I get drafted, I'll probably chase that dream for at least a couple years," said Hirsch, who has a job offer in medical sales from the Cassling Corporation in Denver to fall back upon.
"Fortunately, the company has been extremely flexible with me," he added. "It helps having that degree and the position I've put myself in."
You can reach Craig Brueske at email@example.com