Heading into the final series of the regular season, Nebraska baseball has its spot in the Big Ten Tournament locked up.
The Huskers accomplished that with their sweep over Penn State. Unlike last year, their conference tourney fate won’t be decided on the final weekend, and they won’t miss out.
Still, there’s plenty to look out for in Nebraska’s final three games against Purdue, a series which starts on Thursday.
Besides six teams having clinched a spot in the eight-team conference tournament and only nine being in the picture at this point, not much else is officially decided.
The Huskers (13-8 Big Ten) currently sit in a three-way tie for fourth place in the standings with Michigan and Rutgers, but could finish as high as first and as low as seventh. The latter would require them to get swept by Purdue (10-11), along with Michigan State (10-11) losing a game to second-place Indiana.
Nebraska would lose a tiebreaker with the Boilermakers, but win a three-way tiebreaker with them and the Spartans. The Huskers’ solid season and the fact that Purdue hasn’t swept a conference opponent this year make a seventh place outcome unlikely. A more likely route to the sixth seed is Michigan and Rutgers earning more wins than Nebraska in their respective series.
First or second place is also highly improbable. Top two teams Maryland and Indiana (both 15-6) would need to be swept, along with Iowa (13-7) dropping a game to last-place Northwestern. A Hawkeyes loss and Nebraska sweep would move the Huskers to third place for a semi-realistic best-case scenario.
Fourth and fifth place might be the most likely landing spots. The Huskers own the head-to-head tiebreaker over Michigan and would beat out Rutgers based on records against common opponents. If they remain in a three-way tie, the Scarlet Knights would win the tiebreaker if all three teams swept their final series. If all three remain tied while losing at least one game, Nebraska comes out on top of the trio.
Perhaps the goal should be avoiding the sixth seed for what could be an opening-round rematch with Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament.
This will be a storyline beyond this series, as postseason stats count for season totals as well, but there’s a few program records that will either be broken or come closer to being overtaken.
The team single-season home run record of 93 has a good shot at falling this weekend. The Huskers have 90, and have hit four or more homers in all but one Big Ten series.
Brice Matthews, Max Anderson and Gabe Swansen account for 55 of those long balls.
“Those three guys have obviously had the lion’s share of the home runs for us,” head coach Will Bolt said at a press conference Wednesday. “We’ve had some guys chip in like we thought we might, with (Josh) Caron showing some power at times and so yeah, I thought we would drive the ball. I thought maybe it would come a little bit more spread out. But man, what power numbers those guys have put up.”
Matthews holds the team lead with 20 homers, while Anderson is just behind at 19. It might not happen this series, or at all this season, but they’re not all that far away from Dan Johnson’s 2001 record of 25. Johnson and Matt Hopper each hit 21 the year prior, so Matthews and Anderson also are in range of being the best home-run-hitting duo in program history.
They both would currently land in the bottom half of the top 10 for single-season slugging percentage with the Huskers. Anderson is close to reaching the list for doubles and total bases. Matthews is a steal away from becoming the first Husker with 20 homers and 20 stolen bases in a season.
However the season ends for the junior infield duo, this has been a historic year for both.
A Little Revenge
Last season, Nebraska baseball missed the Big Ten Tournament. Purdue was a notable part of that.
On the last day of the regular season, the Huskers beat Michigan State and needed the Boilermakers to lose a third time against Maryland to make the bracket. However, a controversial weather cancellation prevented that from even being a possibility, and Purdue squeaked in while Nebraska was kept out.
This time around, the roles are shifted. Purdue is fighting to reach the top eight, and the Huskers can stop that from happening in a more direct fashion.
Bolt and pitcher Corbin Hawkins kept thoughts on that situation short on Wednesday, and Anderson mentioned that Nebraska could’ve done more throughout the 2021 season. Still, it’s clear the team hasn’t forgotten that event at all.
“The way things shaped up for us returners, we kind of really like this situation,” Anderson said Wednesday. “We have a chance to get some payback. In baseball, sometimes you don’t get that from a season ago. So, you know, it won’t be a hard game to get excited for.”