Nebraska baseball is well aware of what it needs to accomplish in Omaha this week.
The Huskers, with aspirations of returning to an NCAA regional, likely need to win the Big Ten Tournament to keep their season going. That’s due to the fact that their No. 104 RPI ranking should keep the team from landing an at-large bid.
That leaves automatic qualification as the only option. Head coach Will Bolt and the rest of Nebraska have been prepared for that.
“There’s a sense of urgency,” Bolt said Tuesday. “We’ve kind of known that for about the last month, that that was going to be our path. So all hands on deck to go get that job done.”
It’s the first time Nebraska’s been in the bracket with Bolt at the helm — There was no conference tourney in 2021 due to COVID and Nebraska didn’t finish in the top eight last year. A few players, like fifth-year pitchers Kyle Perry and Shay Schanaman, made it with the Huskers in 2019.
“Shay and I have been getting a lot of questions by the team this week, just what to expect here and there. What are the fans gonna be like? It’s the same answer,” Perry said. “It’s gonna be incredible.”
The first game of the bracket got underway around the time Tuesday’s media availability finished, but Nebraska won’t play its first game until Wednesday against Rutgers. The other three first-round games are played on day one.
There are positives and negatives that come with that scheduling. On one hand, the Huskers and Scarlet Knights are the only teams that could advance through the entire bracket without having a single day off. Their one shot at a rest day is winning their first two games.
On the other side of things, Nebraska gets an extra day off before starting its journey. That’s helpful for the team when it comes to getting its top pitchers some extra rest, along with star shortstop Brice Matthews. The first-team all-conference selection missed last weekend’s series with back tightness.
Bolt said that Matthews might have been healthy enough to play as a designated hitter against Purdue, but the team wanted to focus on ensuring he was as close to full health as possible for the conference tournament.
Designated hitter will once again be an option for Matthews this week, but they hope to see him available defensively. Nebraska committed four errors in the series against the Boilermakers, all in the infield.
“I think it just lines up better for us if he can play defense,” Bolt said. “I think with maybe having another chance to play a matchup with the DH situation.”
Rutgers, the Big Ten’s fifth seed, will bring a challenge for the Huskers. The Scarlet Knights, just outside the top 60 in RPI, are likely in need of a deep conference tournament run to make the NCAA bracket. They have an overall record slightly better than Nebraska’s, being a single game worse in conference play. Taking two of three games from Michigan was the best series feat for both sides.
Statistically, Rutgers is a balanced unit. Its offense doesn’t stand out in many ways, but it ranges from fourth to seventh in the conference in most categories. The exceptions to that include the Scarlet Knights striking out less than any other Big Ten team, and leading the league in sacrifice flies and sacrifice hits. While not addressing the opponent, Perry and Bolt mentioned that because Charles Schwab Field in Omaha is a relatively less home-run-friendly park, an ability to play small ball is important.
Nebraska’s going to incorporate that as well, and try and find ways to score against a Rutgers pitching staff that ranks second in the Big Ten in earned run average. True freshman Christian Coppola’s 3.60 ERA lands third in the conference, and that’s who the Huskers are set to face. Bolt called him competitive and praised his breaking ball.
The second game the Huskers play in the double-elimination tournament will be either top-seeded Maryland or eight-seed Michigan State. Those two match up Tuesday night. The winner plays the winner of Nebraska and Rutgers, while the losers face off in an elimination game.
To reach the single-elimination championship game, the Huskers will have to beat out those three aforementioned foes. They lost their regular-season series against Maryland and didn’t play the other two. The other side of the bracket features Indiana, Iowa, Michigan and Illinois.
Nebraska’s shown it can win a game against the top team in the conference, but it’s still a tough path to the league title. Bolt said he doesn’t like talking about teams getting “hot” this time of year, because it can be a signifier of inconsistency. That being said, he’s willing to use the descriptor for how his squad has been playing recently.
“I just want to be consistent, and that consistency has kind of slipped through our fingers sometimes this year,” Bolt said. “So I’ll gladly say right now, I feel like we’re a group, we’re hot. We’ve got a team that feels good about themselves. We’re going offensively, we’ve got some roles kind of established on the mound and all it takes is just four more wins and you can turn a lot of things around pretty quickly.”
Other news and notes
>> The Big Ten’s awards were announced Tuesday, and Nebraska landed four players on the all-conference teams. Max Anderson was the unanimous pick for first-team second baseman, while Brice Matthews made the first team as an at-large selection. Gabe Swansen was the only Husker on the all-conference second team, while Shay Schanaman was a third-team choice.