Nebraska had just completed its three-game sweep of Northwestern on a pleasant Easter Sunday afternoon, but coach Darin Erstad wasn’t completely happy. Yes, his Huskers had taken advantage of mistakes, such as Northwestern’s seven errors – that’s right, seven. And in college baseball, “whoever screws up less usually wins. That’s how it is,” he said.
But “the part that I don’t like is we’re not finishing games. Right there we’ve got a chance to finish out a series and we just go and decide not to play defense,” he said.
“We’ve been tremendous defensively and we just decided to take a couple of innings off, and you see when they scored their runs, we didn’t take care of the baseball.”
The Huskers had scored three runs in the bottom of the seventh to take a seemingly comfortable 8-4 lead, only to commit an error in the top of the eighth to allow two unearned runs and then commit another error in the ninth, forcing closer Dylan Vogt to work out of trouble again.
Even though Nebraska overcame the defensive lapse, “that just can’t happen,” said Erstad.
The Huskers have no margin for error, literally.
“We need every single win we can get in conference play,” Erstad said.
“The ultimate goal is the No. 1 seed in the conference. If not that, the No. 2 seed, so you can get that bye in the first round, the way the tournament’s structured. And before we even get to that point, we have to get in the tournament, so any game you can win conference-wise, we need ‘em.
“I’ll take ‘em any way they come.”
The Big Ten tournament is scheduled for May 22-26 in Minneapolis.
Nebraska’s sense of urgency is, in part, a result of a rugged non-conference schedule. Even though the Huskers are 5-1 in Big Ten play, they’re still under .500 for the season, at 11-15.
Early in the season, Nebraska found ways to lose, Erstad said. “Now we’re starting to find ways to win games. Just like you can learn how to lose, you can learn how to win.
“We’re seeing that. We’re starting to get those guys with big two-out RBIs late in the game, where they’re sticking with the approach, taking line drives the other way.
“And those are just going to build confidence for future games.”
The sweep of Northwestern was a case in point. In the first game, a 10-9 victory in 16 innings, the Huskers came back to tie with two outs in the bottom of the seventh (four runs) and again in the bottom of the ninth (one run) and in the second game, they rallied from a 4-0 deficit in the seventh.
In Sunday’s game, they took a 3-0 lead early but went to the sixth tied at 4. Again, they had a big seventh inning, scoring three runs – to give them 12 in the seventh for the weekend.
The Huskers had 52 hits in the three games, including eight by Pat Kelly, who went 0-for-9 on Friday night but then 8-for-10 on Saturday and Sunday, also scoring three runs and driving in four.
“The guy can hit. There’s no way around it,” said Erstad.
Chad Christensen and Kash Kalkowski each had seven hits over the weekend, and Bryan Peters, who didn’t start Friday night, was a productive 5-of-12 with three runs scored and four driven in.
The Wildcats “have some pretty darn good pitchers,” Erstad said. “They’ve got some guys with good velocity and good off-speed stuff, but for the most part, I thought overall we put the pressure on the defense. When you put the ball in play, on the ground or on the line, you make them make plays.”
Tyler Niederklein, who’s coming off hip surgery, provided a boost to the Huskers’ pitching, starting and going four innings on Sunday. He allowed three hits and one run.
“He threw strikes,” Erstad said. “I mean, he’s had a tough time throwing strikes recently, and he had a tough time getting up and down with his hip surgery, the strength in his hip.
“On the positive side, he felt better today. He felt like it was stronger, which is great, and he gave us some innings and gave us a chance to win. And hopefully . . . (he’ll) continue to do that.”
The bullpen also gave Nebraska a chance to win.
“Vogt and (Josh) Roeder have done a really nice job out there. (Aaron) Bummer, I thought, is throwing the ball well, and Tyler King is actually really throwing the ball well,” said Erstad. “Other than that, we’ve got some work to do, and . . . I should say Zach Hirsch, too.”
Hirsch pitched 4 2/3 innings of relief over the weekend and was credited with two of the victories, including Sunday’s. He allowed four hits and no runs, struck out six and didn’t walk any in his two appearances.
“But we’re going to need a little bit more depth than that, not to mention some starters are actually going to get people out and get a little deeper in the game,” Erstad said. “So we still have a lot of issues we have to deal with and find guys to step up, and we’ll continue to work through that.”
With the sweep of Northwestern, Nebraska is second in the Big Ten, behind Indiana. The Hoosiers are 6-0, after sweeping Iowa – the Huskers’ next conference opponent this weekend in Iowa City.
Indiana is 22-3 overall, with a 15-game winning streak. Its last loss was at Florida.
The Hoosiers, who have a staff ERA of 2.24, come to Lincoln May 4-6. But Nebraska has much to do before then. Next up, another game at Kansas State on Tuesday night.