If the Nebraska baseball team wants to qualify for the eight-team Big Ten Tournament just down the road in Omaha, these last three weeks will be crucial.
The Huskers, 18-25 overall and 6-9 in the Big Ten, currently sit tied for ninth in the conference standings with Michigan State and Indiana. Big Red’s opponent this weekend, Minnesota in Minneapolis, is dead last with just two wins in the conference.
If the Huskers win the series, or better yet sweep the Gophers, it will create much-needed momentum heading into a series on the road at Illinois, which is currently third in the conference with a Big Ten record of 12-6. But for Garrett Anglim, a redshirt freshman from Papillion-La Vista, the Huskers are taking things one game at a time and not looking ahead.
“It all starts with that first game on Friday,” said Anglim, who’s hitting .289 with 25 RBIs. “Go from there, but obviously we’re looking to win a lot of these games and get to that Big Ten tourney and do damage there.”
According to head coach Will Bolt, Shay Schanaman will get the start on the mound Friday while Emmett Olson will go on Saturday. Sunday’s slot is left open, same as last week.
It’s all hands on deck, Bolt said, and the team needs to get off to a good start in Minneapolis. If that means using starter Koty Frank on Friday or Saturday to help seal a win out of the bullpen, so be it. There are other arms, like Dawson McCarville or Mason Ornelas, who could help the team out with a spot start on Sunday if needed.
Minnesota (12-30, 2-13) has struggled this season. Both the Gophers and Huskers are tied in team batting average at .245. Minnesota has the fewest hits in the conference at 337 (Nebraska has the second-fewest with 341) and has the worst on-base percentage at 0.342.
The difference between the two can be found on the mound. The Gophers’ pitching staff ranks 10th in the conference in team earned-run average at 6.21. Nebraska’s arms have a 4.77 team ERA, fourth best in the Big Ten.
“They’re a good left-handed lineup, left-handed heavy,” Bolt said of Minnesota. “They have some guys with some thump in there. A lot of guys on the mound with really good stuff. So I think offensively, we just have to continue to take our walks when they’re presented, stay aggressive on the bases. The thing we did a great job of this past weekend was limiting the free passes on the mound. Those are recipes to win games.”
Nebraska lost two of the three games to Iowa, one of the better teams in the conference, but the Huskers made the Hawkeyes work for it. Iowa won the first game just 1-0 before getting blasted 12-1 in seven innings in the front end of a doubleheader Sunday. In the back end, the Hawkeyes left Lincoln with a 5-3 victory.
Though the series was lost, Bolt was happy with how his team competed.
“I thought we played at an extremely high level this past weekend,” Bolt said. “That’s what I told the team—you’re not going to win every game, you just have to put yourself in position to play good baseball. If we do that down the stretch, I like our chances.”
Cam Chick is seeing good things in the dugout during this recent stretch of four wins in the last six games. Chick was hitting just .140 on March 19, but has since upped his average to .273 while getting on base at a ..466 clip, which ranks eighth in the conference.
“Everything he’s done has just been with the team in the forefront of his mind,” Bolt said of Chick, a fourth-year player. “It’s funny—as guys get later in their careers, they start to see their individual stats tend to be as good as they’ve ever seen them. And that’s been the case with Cam in that leadoff spot. His on-base percentage speaks for itself. He’s just finding different ways to help us win.”
On Wednesday, Chick talked about the selflessness around the lineup as the reason why things have been going better lately. Not just with a few batters, but all nine.
“We’re passing the baton, we’re moving the ball when we need to, stealing when we need to, executing the offense when we need to,” Chick said. “Right now, everyone’s clicking, everyone’s swinging, everyone’s aggressive and not as passive as we were in the past and we’re kind of getting our swings off right now and it’s just clicking.”
How’d the team get to this point? To Chick, he thinks it stems from a what-have-we-got-to-lose mentality.
“Let’s go out there, let’s play, let’s have fun and give it all you got, and that’s what everyone is doing right now and it’s finally showing what we should be doing all year,” he said. “Kind of sucks that we waited until now, but why not? There’s no better time to get hot than right now.”
Olson has helped fill a need on the mound as other pitchers have went down with injury this season. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound right-hander has a team-best 2.28 ERA with 46 strikeouts against 11 walks.
In his last start, the blowout of the Hawkeyes last Sunday, Olson tossed seven innings and gave up just one run while racking up seven strikeouts with no walks.
“He’s been really good obviously,” Bolt said. “In his last start, he looked like a true starter because he didn’t dip in terms of his velocity, he was still throwing 94 miles per hour in his seventh inning of work. He’s got the looks of a big-time starter right now.”
Olson has gotten better as he’s gotten older. As a freshman last season, the Illinois native came out of the bullpen 10 times, throwing 12 innings with a 4.50 ERA. But Olson looks different in his second year. That’s due to the work he’s put into his body.
“His body is in better shape. He’s a lot stronger than he was last year. Because of that he’s able to hold his stuff better,” Bolt said. “I think he has two more breaking balls that he can throw, last year was just kind of fastball and changeup. He’s throwing a lot of strikes, he’s getting ahead, he’s getting the fastball to glove side. He’s doing all the things you need a starter to do.”
Friday’s game one against the Gophers is scheduled for a 6:30 p.m. first pitch. Saturday’s game two will begin at 6 p.m. while Sunday’s will be at 1 p.m.
Other news and notes
>> Colby Gomes, who last saw action on the mound March 4 against Texas-Arlington, has been working his way back to full health after sustaining an injury. Bolt said the 6-foot-5 right-hander felt pretty good.
“Getting him back and throwing to live hitters here soon, that would be great,” Bolt said. “His hand is feeling better, so maybe we could see him back in the lineup at some point.”
>> Bolt said Ethan Bradford “is still a ways off” from seeing any sort of action on the mound. Bradford last pitched March 4 as well before leaving the game with discomfort. Jake Bunz, another pitcher who was injured and hasn’t pitched since February, has been trying to get healthy enough to return to the mound. Bunz has just been playing catch lately and hasn’t faced live hitters.
“Gomes probably has the best chance to potentially get back out there,” Bolt said.