Huskers top Penn State, enter regular-season finale with Big Ten title on the line

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Nebraska regained control of its Big Ten fate before even taking the baseball field Friday night. This time the Huskers made sure they didn’t give it back.

Jake Schleppenbach rapped a pair of one-out RBI singles and Luis Alvarado added a late home run as No. 23 Nebraska took a big step toward its first regular-season league title since 2005 with a 3-1 victory over Penn State at Medlar Field. NU starter Derek Burkamper pitched five-plus scoreless innings and relievers Jake McSteen and Alvarado closed out the game to even the series following an 8-7 walk-off loss Thursday.

Saturday’s finale is set for 10 a.m. and will air on 1600 AM, 105.5 FM in Nebraska City.

“I’m excited they get that opportunity (to win the league),” NU coach Darin Erstad said during his postgame radio interview. “At the start of the year, if you said, ‘Hey, if you gotta win one game to be a conference champion, would you take that?’ everybody would shake their head yes.

“So here you are. But it doesn’t change what we’re doing. I’m actually excited we’re playing at 11 (eastern time) because nobody’s going to sleep anyway.”

A flurry of league action throughout the day leaves the first-place Huskers (33-18-1, 15-7-1) in strong position to claim their first Big Ten crown in their sixth year as members. Win Saturday against the last-place Nittany Lions (18-36, 4-19) and they are Big Ten champs. A defeat could drop them as low as third in the standings, though they could still finish first with losses by Michigan and Minnesota.

The Huskers’ gut-punch loss Thursday left them in need of two Minnesota losses Friday to give them a chance for a title. The Gophers obliged, falling 5-2 to Purdue to complete a suspended game before an 11-1 loss to open a doubleheader.

Minnesota won the nightcap and Michigan topped Michigan State 11-6, leaving either school in position to pass the Huskers should they falter Saturday.

Outside of men’s indoor and outdoor track, Nebraska has yet to win a Big Ten regular-season title in a men’s team sport.

PSU righty starter Justin Hagenman befuddled the Huskers early, racking up six of his eight strikeouts in four scoreless innings to start the game. Nebraska managed just three base runners in that stretch on a walk, an error and a Ben Miller double in the fourth.

The Huskers broke the scoreless stalemate in the fifth when Alvarado doubled, went to third on a flyout and scored on a Schleppenbach hit to left. Hagenman avoided further damage after Mojo Hagge’s one-out single with a strikeout and flyout.

Penn State’s starter — who entered with a 1-10 record and 5.85 ERA — continued to trail by the lone run until the seventh, when Alvarado walked, stole second and came in on another Schleppenbach hit. The PSU hurler turned in one of his best outings of the spring, lasting eight innings overall.

Burkamper produced just one 1-2-3 inning, but went five-plus scoreless frames to pick up his sixth win of the spring without his sharpest stuff. The senior from Muscatine, Iowa, scattered six hits and a walk while striking out two. PSU’s biggest threat against him was in the fourth, when the hosts led off with two singles. A sacrifice bunt put both Nittany Lions in scoring position before the Nebraska starter collected a popup and strikeout looking.

After giving up a leadoff single in the sixth, Burkamper gave way to lefty reliever Jake McSteen, who retired the first six batters he faced. Penn State touched him for a run in the eighth when two singles set up Nick Riotto’s RBI groundout that cut NU’s lead to 2-1.

Alvarado, the co-closer, entered and escaped the men-at-the-corners jam with a strikeout, then swatted his second homer of the season with an opposite-field shot to right-center to extend Nebraska’s lead to 3-1.

The junior from Puerto Rico then returned to the mound, working around a one-out error and a walk with a groundout and foulout to lock down his 10th save.

“(Alvarado) got a huge strikeout, then he goes and hits a homer and he’s going crazy in the dugout — hyperventilating, screaming and everything,” Erstad said. “We just needed to get him back grounded. Just nice job fighting our way through it. Nothing’s going to come easy, man. This is just the way it is, and we gotta get some quick sleep and be ready to go (Saturday).”

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