It almost seemed too easy, didn’t it?
The Huskers and their new skipper had cruised along to an 18-9 record, were leading the conference and near the top of the country in offense. What a turnaround by Darin Erstad and his crew!
Perhaps folks jumped the gun in looking ahead to Nebraska’s NCAA tourney at-large bid chances. Maybe they were too willing to look past a shaky starting rotation or Nebraska itself may have been brushing off a bottom-dwelling RPI opponent that plays in a ballpark more fitting a middle-school than a major college baseball team.
Regardless of initial projections, Nebraska was badly exposed by a Northwestern pitching staff that allowed only seven runs over their final 21 innings of work.
The Wildcats Saturday starter, freshman Brandon Magallones pitched brilliantly over eight-plus innings, giving up only three runs, the final two coming when he was out of the game.
As good Magallones was in Northwestern’s 8-4 Saturday win, junior Zach Morton was better. Morton, who played second base against Nebraska on Friday and Saturday, took the mound on Sunday and threw a six-hit complete game while only allowing one run and striking out three.
The Huskers never had a chance in the game, falling 6-1 and losing their first Big Ten conference series.
Saturday’s contest would have been closer, had it not been for Nebraska’s infield developing a case of the errors. The six errors the Nebraska infield served up were costly as Northwestern scored eight runs, and not a single one was earned.
Nebraska had recently been ranked in the nation’s top ten when it came to fielding percentage. That standing is obviously gone, but an elimination of only a few key errors would’ve swung Saturday’s contest and the series in the Big Red’s favor.
There were clear signs the Nebraska offense was struggling. Chad Christensen went 1-of-12 with nine strikeouts on the weekend. Northwestern struck out 21 Huskers in the first two games and 24 on the weekend.
The series wasn’t all bad. Michael Pritchard went 5-of-11 at the dish. Tom Lemke had a solid start on Friday, pitching six innings while allowing just three earned runs and recording the victory.
Jon Keller only allowed three hits in his 3.2 innings of work on Saturday, but five walks combined with the Nebraska errors allowed six unearned runs. Brandon Pierce and Aaron Bummer followed his effort with 4.1 innings of three hit-ball, but again errors bit them for two unearned runs.
Even Zach Hirsch pitched well on Sunday, going 5.2 innings and allowing just three earned runs, but Dylan Vogt allowed the Wildcats to blow the game open with three more runs, effectively botching the series.
While Nebraska’s starting pitching has been a glaring weakness, it wasn’t the issue here. The Huskers have lowered their ERA on the year, and gave up only 10 earned runs (3.33/game) over the weekend.
Their biggest strengths, both defense and offense, abandoned them in key games and vital situations. It was reminiscent of Mike Anderson’s squads.
The series loss puts Nebraska a game behind Purdue and two games back of Minnesota, which swept Michigan this weekend. It certainly hurts the Huskers’ RPI, and starts putting to bed any notion of Nebraska receiving an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament.
In some ways, that’s freeing. The Huskers still need to compete for one of the top two seeds in the B1G tournament, but otherwise they can focus on improving down the stretch.
With Nebraska’s pitching being its primary weakness, the first-round bye that comes with the top two seeds will be crucial for Nebraska’s chances to win the conference competition.
All in all, this is a good reality check for both Nebraska and its fans. The ghosts of Mike Anderson are still lurking. It may take longer than just one year to rebuild the pitching staff, and instill the killer instinct trademarked by the Dave Van Horn teams that assistant Will Bolt played on.
AROUND THE LEAGUE:
Minnesota – 3-0 (16-13)
No. 28 Purdue – 4-2 (20-5)
Indiana – 4-2 (12-16)
Michigan State – 1-1 (16-8)
3. Northwestern – 3-3 (10-15)
Nebraska – 3-3 (19-11)
Iowa – 3-3 (10-14)
Ohio State- 2-3 (14-11)
5. Illinois – 1-2 (15-10)
Penn State – 2-4 (7-18)
Michigan – 0-3 (12-16)
Minnesota (16-13, 3-0 B1G) and Michigan (12-16, 0-3 B1G) sat out league play last weekend, but started their conference play with a series that Minnesota swept .
Purdue won its series against Penn State, but dropped the finale while Indiana took two of three from the Iowa Hawkeyes. Michigan and Ohio State split the first two games, and play their finale today (Monday, April 2).
Illinois sat out conference play this weekend, as the B1G has eleven baseball playing teams (Wisconsin doesn’t field Division 1 baseball).
- Chad Christensen’s batting average took a hit this weekend, dropping to .358. Only Michael Pritchard (who went 6-of-11 on the weekend) and Pat Kelly (5-of-12) remain over .400
- The team batting average has been slowly coming back down, and now sits a .320. Opponents are batting .286.
- All three weekend starters for Nebraska have ERAs above 4.00, with Lemke, Keller and Hirsch claiming 4.13, 4.17 and 4.65 ERAs, respectively.
- The team ERA has finally dipped below 3.95. Opponents have a 7.38 ERA. Meanwhile, the Team WHIP is at 1.51.
- Team fielding percentage dropped to .974 after the six error performance on Saturday. The culprits on the infield, Chad Christensen (.961), Kurt Farmer (.911) and Pat Kelly (.895) also represent the three lowest fielding percentages by position players on the team.
- Nebraska’s road trip ends Tuesday as they visit Manhattan, Kansas to play Kansas State. The Huskers won the first two games at Haymarket Park to take the overall series.
- A return to Haymarket Park on Friday marks the beginning of a three-game series against border rival Iowa. The Hawkeyes are coming off a weekend series loss to Indiana. The four-game homestand concludes with the first game of this season’s in-state rivalry series against Creighton.
- Nebraska has only 26 games remaining before the Big Ten tournament. To be a lock for an at-large bid, Nebraska would need to win 21 of those games, though it could potentially make up several of those wins in the conference tournament.