Friday night marked a low point for Nebraska baseball this season.
Minnesota, a team sitting near the bottom of the Big Ten, scored five runs in the top of the ninth inning to put itself in position for its series-opening win. It was the fifth loss in six games for the Huskers, the other four coming from last weekend’s Iowa sweep and a midweek defeat to South Dakota State. A Tuesday triumph over Omaha, which had already won twice against Nebraska this year, was not quite enough to make up for the shortcomings.
This stretch dimmed the team’s chances of an at-large bid to the NCAA postseason tourney, while also raising concern about their standing in the Big Ten. Only the top eight teams in the league standings play in the conference tournament, and Friday’s loss dropped Nebraska to seventh. Losing the series would have, at best, kept them around that spot with better opponents awaiting.
But the Huskers emphatically shut down any panic alarms, even if just for the weekend. They won Saturday’s contest by a score of 18-0, then an early 9-0 advantage allowed them to cruise to an 11-5 series-deciding win on Sunday.
“This weekend, I thought we showed up three days in a row with really good focus and very, very competitive for three straight days,” head coach Will Bolt said postgame Sunday. “It wasn’t necessarily perfect all the time, but it was very competitive, and we got a series win out of it.”
The vast majority of those imperfections Bolt mentioned came from Friday, where Nebraska trailed 4-1 after just the second inning. Emmett Olson, having struggled in his past two starts on the mound, appeared to be heading for yet another short outing.
That was where things started to turn around, however. Olson turned in a 1-2-3 inning in the third, striking out two batters. Nebraska’s offense — or Gabe Swansen in particular — gave an equally impressive effort in the bottom frame. Swansen previously brought in the first Husker run of the game with a first-inning single, and he added three more RBI with a game-tying home run to right field.
Olson continued his momentum on the mound, holding the Gophers scoreless up through the sixth inning. The Huskers didn’t score any more until that very inning, when Casey Burnham came up with a two-out RBI single to put Nebraska in front.
The score remained 5-4 until the ninth inning. Shay Schanaman, who took over for Olson in the seventh inning, allowed back-to-back singles to start the ninth. Two batters later, the tying run scored as a ground ball bounced up and off shortstop Brice Matthews. Another single loaded the bases and put Jake Bunz into the game for Schanaman, but that didn’t slow the Gophers down. Bunz walked in the go-ahead run, then allowed a bases-clearing double with two outs. A 5-4 lead turned to a 9-5 deficit.
Nebraska still fought back, scoring two runs in the bottom of the ninth, but Matthews struck out looking with two runners on to end the game.
The Huskers ensured that result wouldn’t be repeated on Saturday, with ample help from the opponent. In game two, Nebraska scored its first run without recording a hit. Minnesota walked the first two batters and advanced them on an infield fly that wasn’t caught, allowing Swansen to record another RBI as he reached on an error.
Early on, the lead was built slowly. Nebraska scored one run in each of the first, third and fourth innings, followed by two in the fifth. Then came four runs in the sixth inning, and eight in the seventh. The Huskers had 10 total hits in that pair of innings, along with benefitting from hit-by-pitches and opponent errors.
Scoring 18 runs somewhat overshadowed a great start from Jace Kaminska, who struggled throughout April. He pitched seven innings, allowing five hits and striking out seven batters.
The standout factors of Saturday’s win carried into Sunday. Will Walsh had a quality start on the mound, the Husker offense found more success, and Minnesota often couldn’t get out of its own way.
Walsh allowed a leadoff single in the series-deciding matchup, followed by a bunt single to put two on with no outs. With the help of two strikeouts, he got out of that jam, then held the Gophers scoreless again in the second inning after the opponent put runners on first and second with one out.
“Those things don’t always show up when the score is lopsided in the end,” Bolt said of Walsh’s first inning. “You don’t necessarily think about it, but I thought that was a big moment there.”
Two Minnesota errors and a wild pitch once again allowed Nebraska to score the first run without a base hit in the first inning, but the bats showed up in the bottom of the fourth. A hit-by-pitch and two walks gave the Huskers bases loaded with no outs, and a passed ball brought in the first score of another eight-run inning. The five hits in the frame included a three-run homer from Cole Evans and a Gabe Swansen solo shot.
The Gophers weren’t shut out this time, putting up three runs in Walsh’s last inning on the mound and adding a couple more late, but the score was closest at 9-4 after the top of the eighth inning. In the bottom of the eighth, Max Anderson hit his 16th home run of the season to push the advantage back to 11-4.
Anderson and Swansen accounted for six of Nebraska’s eight home runs in the series, hitting three each.
Nebraska now sits in a three-way tie for third in the conference standings, just half a game ahead of sixth-place Iowa. With three more weekends left in the regular season, there’s still room for change, but winning the series put the team in a considerably better spot.
After a midweek game against North Dakota State, the Huskers will face a major conference test on the road against Maryland, the first-place team in the Big Ten.