Behind a massive performance from Will Walsh, Nebraska baseball kept its season alive in the Big Ten Tournament.
The Huskers were coming off a crushing extra-innings loss to Maryland less than 24 hours prior, in which allowing two runs all game and one through the first nine innings wasn’t enough for a win. That sent them to a Thursday-night elimination game against Michigan State. The response was a complete-game shutout by Walsh, leading Nebraska to a 4-0 win that secured its spot in the conference semifinals.
“These guys are here to win. They’re here to try to win a championship,” head coach Will Bolt said postgame of his team’s ability to bounce back. “I had no doubt that we were going to show up and compete tonight, and I think we did exactly that.”
As for Walsh, the two-way player kept things all business postgame, directing much of the praise toward his teammates and coaches.
“Just being on attack,” he said about the keys to his success in the game. “Coach [Jeff] Christy was calling the pitches, Josh [Caron] behind the plate, just a lot of trust in them and then the defense made great plays behind me. So just trying to fill it up, let the defense do what they can do.”
When asked whether he’d been this locked in on the mound before in his career and gone this far into a contest, Walsh said it’s happened a “couple” times, but acknowledged that this one meant a little more.
There was plenty of basis for the left-hander to give credit to his teammates, of course. Brice Matthews and Gabe Swansen each made impressive running catches to prevent hits, while Dylan Carey stopped a hard ground ball from getting by and still made the throw to first in time. However, Walsh was individually fantastic in many ways. He gave up just four hits, while not walking or hitting any Spartans. One of those baserunners got out on a double play, and only once did a Michigan State player advance to second base.
Of his 104 pitches, 75 were strikes. Three of his seven strikeouts came in the final inning. Oftentimes, his first pitch to a batter was a strike. Bolt said that ability to consistently get ahead in counts was a major factor in the strong outing. The head coach liked the matchup heading into the contest, and thought his pitcher had a chance at a long appearance.
“To think that he’s going to give you a complete game, certainly you don’t expect that,” Bolt said. “But he’s a guy that when he’s rolling, he keeps his pitch count down because teams just kind of start getting really aggressive on him. And so he saved our pen tonight, that’s for sure.”
The offense did its job as well. Four runs and nine runners left on base might not be impressive numbers, but the bats came through enough to win comfortably.
Nebraska’s first run scored in the top of the fourth inning. Charlie Fischer started the frame with a single to center field, then being advanced on Carey’s second sacrifice bunt of the game. Ben Columbus came through shortly after, sending another single to center to score Fischer.
The score remained at 1-0 after seven innings, a somewhat frustrating result for the Huskers. They had put at least one runner on base in six of those innings. On top of that, Michigan State sent a couple fly balls to the warning track in the sixth, along with a potential homer just outside the foul pole. None of that brought a serious scoring threat, nor did the Spartans’ one seventh-inning single, but the prior day’s events had just shown a 1-0 advantage wasn’t safe.
Then came the eighth inning. With one out, Fischer walked, and pinch-runner Luke Sartori stole second. That set the stage for Columbus’ second RBI single, extending the lead to 2-0. Anglim walked right after to put two on with two outs.
Casey Burnham was next to the plate, and the batter, in the midst of a slump, knocked a ball toward first. It appeared it’d end up as a somewhat routine groundout, until the ball took a wild bounce and went over Michigan State’s 6-foot-7 first baseman. Burnham advanced all the way to third on the hit, scoring two more runs.
Bolt said part of Burnham’s recent struggles at the plate were just bad luck, as he had a number of well-hit lineouts in the past couple weeks.
“He was owed that one tonight, I guess you could say by the baseball gods for that one,” Bolt said. “And he put the ball in play with two strikes. I mean, that just goes to show if you just move the ball, then you got a shot.”
That gave the Huskers a cushion they didn’t end up needing, and now the team will have another shot against Maryland in the semifinals. Nebraska has to beat the Terrapins twice on Saturday to advance to the championship of the Big Ten Tournament. The top team in the conference, which has won four of the five matchups between the teams this season, will surely provide another challenge.