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In Search Of ‘More Winnings Plays,’ Nebraska Travels to Illinois for Final Big Ten Road Series

May 12, 2022

The way Will Bolt looks at it, his Nebraska baseball team has been in almost every game they wound up losing this season. That tells him his players are coming out with the right mindset, which is expecting to win.

But as everyone around the program knows, the win total isn’t where everyone would like it. The Huskers are 19-27 overall and 7-11 against Big Ten competition. They’re in danger of not qualifying for the eight-team conference tournament, which just so happens to be right down the road in Omaha this season.

Nebraska is tied for ninth in the Big Ten standings with Northwestern (21-23, 7-11). The Huskers will load up the buses and drive to Champaign, Illinois, for a three-game series with the Fighting Illini (26-19, 12-6) beginning Friday night. Shay Schanaman will get the start on the mound in game one, which is scheduled to start at 6 p.m.

“We have to make more winning plays, especially defensively,” Bolt said Thursday morning before the buses left for Illinois. “I think that’s probably been the biggest difference between this team and maybe some others. You lose some of these pitchers, and that’s going to hurt. But defensively, we’ve just been on the wrong side of some of these plays in late innings. Other teams are making throws to throw us out at the plate and we’re making the errors to extend innings. So the mindset is there in order to be in the game.”

Bolt will go with the same starting rotation as last week, with Schanaman throwing Friday while Emmett Olson will go Saturday with a wait-and-see approach for Sunday’s game three. Last weekend, freshman Jackson Brockett got the Sunday start and did well, throwing 5.1 innings of one-run baseball while striking out a career-high seven batters and allowing just four hits.

Nebraska’s pitching staff has been hit with adversity on and off the diamond this season. Opening-day starter Kyle Perry and key relievers Jake Bunz and Ethan Bradford have all missed time with injuries—Perry has thrown 14.2 innings while Bunz tossed .1 and Bradford 5.2. Colby Gomes, who started the season as the team’s closer, hasn’t pitched on the mound since March 4 due to a hand injury.

On top of the injuries, Jaxon Jelkin, a promising freshman from Bellevue West, was dismissed from the team in April for a violation of team rules.

Add another pitcher to the list.

On Thursday morning, Bolt confirmed that Tyler Martin was off the team for violating team rules. Martin, a 6-foot-2, 185-pound senior left-hander from Missouri, made 20 appearances out of the bullpen this season and had an earned-run average of 4.32. He struck out 24 batters and issued 11 walks.

“Next man up,” Bolt said.

But even with all the instability, the Husker arms still have the fourth-best team ERA in the conference at 4.75. Their depth has shined and kept some losses from getting ugly. Coming into the season, Bolt said the team was built from the back of the bullpen to the front with the starters.

“When you lose as many guys as we lost, it’s difficult to think you can be competitive, and we have done that because we’ve had some guys step up. Brockett as a freshman has really stepped up,” Bolt said. “You still have some guys with some experience who are still available. So just having that depth has allowed us to at least be competitive in games where, typically if you lose that many high-leverage arms, it makes it awfully difficult to stay competitive at times.”

Brockett has a 5.19 ERA in 10 appearances and three starts this season. He has a 27-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Opponents are hitting just .232 off the right-hander from Elkhorn South, who spent his senior high school season in Georgia.

Brockett is one of the young arms that has had success this season. So is the sophomore Olson (2.75 ERA in 52.1 innings), freshman CJ Hood (4.63 ERA in 11.2 innings) and freshman Chandler Benson (4.66 ERA in 9.2 innings).

“They’ve gotten a stronger mentality when they come into the game,” catcher Griffin Everitt said. “You can tell some guys especially come in there with a little something behind them. They got some attitude on the mound. They’re not just up there hoping and wishing. They’re competing and getting after guys and trusting their stuff.”

Illinois has the third-best team batting average in the conference at .291. The Illini are good about not striking out either, as their 337 punchouts is the second-fewest in the Big Ten, only to Purdue’s 327.

Cole Kirschsieper will start on the mound Friday for Illinois. The 5-11, 170-pounder is 6-2 this season with an ERA of 2.93 in 70.2 innings of work. The Illinois native has a 73-22 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

“They’re always athletic. They’re a team that puts the ball in play, they can run a little bit, they’re going to hit for a high average,” Bolt said of Illinois. “The difference this year with their team is they’re pitching better than they did last year. They have a really good Friday night guy (Kirschsieper) that we’re going to see, and their bullpen is much improved. You have to make winning plays to win period. But you play at team like that that’s well-rounded, we’re going to have to play at a really high level.”

With just two regular-season series left in the season (Illinois and Michigan State), Max Anderson said watching the standings is naturally a part of life and baseball. But he knows the Huskers still need to go out and control what they can control—winning games. That didn’t happen last weekend against the Big Ten-worst Minnesota Golden Gophers, where the Huskers lost two of the three contests.

Anderson, who’s hitting .284 with seven home runs and 33 RBIs, thinks Nebraska can be one of those teams that gets hot at the right time. Although the Huskers had the opportunity to be that team last weekend, he’s still confident his squad has that in it as the end of the season approaches.

“We’re still bringing everything we got to every single practice every time we show up to the field,” Anderson said. “Everybody wants to be there, everyone wants to play for the guy that might be pitching and giving everything they got at the plate or catching behind the dish. Everybody wants to play for everybody.”

Other news and notes:

>> Shortstop Brice Matthews, who injured a knee during pregame warmups last Friday at Minnesota, won’t play defense this weekend, but there is a slight chance the Huskers could use him in the batter’s box if he progresses well.

“He’s moving around a little bit better. Been able to take some swings in the cages,” Bolt said. “We’ll kind of see how he responds after the long bus ride today. Maybe have him swing a little bit more. I don’t anticipate him being available defensively, just moving side to side is probably going to be an issue, but depending on how he bounces back in the next couple of days, maybe a potential pinch-hit option for the weekend.”

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