Huskers’ first Big Ten baseball series win keeps conference tournament hopes alive

LINCOLN — Matt Warren had no idea if his pitches had better life or velocity than usual Sunday. What he did know — and all he cared about — was that the outs kept coming.

One week after losing his starting job, the senior graduate transfer pitched into the seventh inning for the first time with Nebraska. The offense, meanwhile, rose up in the middle innings and the Huskers took a shutout into the ninth at sun-bathed Haymarket Park to defeat Maryland 5-2, claiming a must-have series to keep their postseason chances alive.

Warren struck out four and allowed five hits, but three scorched double-play balls were the highlights as NU committed no errors and won its first Big Ten series this season.

“(I) felt a lot better, but I don’t want to take any credit for that,” Warren said after his best performance of the year.

“You guys saw all the plays the defense made today, so it’s all on those guys. I owe them everything in the world after that. … It was a team effort — that’s nothing about me. I think anybody could have been pitching today and it would have been the same result.”

The victory moved Nebraska (22-23, 6-10 Big Ten) ahead of Maryland (20-27, 6-11) into 10th place in the league, percentage points behind Rutgers and 1 ½ games behind eighth-place Michigan State with six league games left. The top eight teams qualify for the conference tournament in Omaha later this month.

Nebraska did its damage in the middle innings, with Scott Schreiber socking his 18th home run of the season in the fourth and the bottom third of the lineup igniting a three-run fifth. Jaxon Hallmark singled and Alex Henwood doubled to open that frame, then both came in on a gap-splitting double by No. 9 hitter Ben Klenke. The Seward grad later scored on Jesse Wilkening’s sacrifice fly.

Pinch hitter Carter Cross added a sacrifice fly in the eighth as the Huskers extended their streak of consecutive runs to 21 before Maryland scored a pair in the ninth. The Huskers started the same lineup in consecutive games for the first time this season.

“I think we’re getting in our groove down there (in the order),” Klenke said. “Henwood’s really swinging the bat well, so that helps a lot, especially with Jaxon swinging it well and Angelo (Altavilla), too. We knew we had to win that game to keep our hopes alive for the (Big Ten) tournament, so we came out and took care of what we needed to.”

Warren set the tone, with three double plays helping him face three batters over the minimum through six innings. The 24-year-old former Creighton hurler applauded as Schreiber fielded a hard roller at first base to start a 3-6-3 double play in the second inning and third baseman Luke Roskam caught a liner and doubled off a runner in the third. Schreiber added an unassisted double play in the fifth inning.

Coach Darin Erstad moved Warren into the bullpen for last weekend’s series against Nevada and didn’t announce a starter for Sunday’s game in advance. Warren said he felt more in control of his pace on the mound than he has all spring. Erstad said he saw Warren attacking the strike zone and mixing up his offerings.

“It’s amazing when you have conviction, the ball knows and the game knows,” Erstad said. “You just attack and lay it out there and good things happen. I would say that he probably hasn’t had things go his way as far as the bounces and stuff if you’re going to look at a full season. I think he made up for it today with some of the ones that were hit today, so that was good to see.”

Maryland senior right-hander Taylor Bloom hung with Warren and then some early on, retiring the first 10 Nebraska batters before Schreiber hit a solo home run into the right-field bullpen. Schreiber’s 44th career homer tied him with Alex Gordon for fourth in program history. The senior went 1 for 4 to move into fifth on the school’s all-time hits list.

Nebraska’s bullpen took care of the rest. Paul Tillotson escaped a two-on, two-out jam in the seventh with a strikeout. After Maryland loaded the bases with two singles and a fielder’s choice in the eighth, closer Jake Hohensee squashed the rally when Roskam corralled a line drive and dove on the third-base bag for a double play.

Hohensee, pitching on consecutive days for the first time in four years, earned his 11th save despite allowing a Justin Morris RBI single and a run-scoring wild pitch with two outs in the ninth.

Erstad said the successful series wasn’t a matter of finding a right way to prepare his team, which plays at Creighton on Tuesday before its home finale next weekend against Indiana. At this point, the Huskers know their playoff hopes hang by a thread.

“There’s not many buttons to really push,” Erstad said. “We’re on life support.”

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