LINCOLN — Jesse Wilkening is looking forward to playing baseball with his friends for one more weekend.
The injury-related what-ifs surrounding the Huskers have finally faded into the summer sky. The competitive fire still burns, but the frustration of April struggles has blended into mid-May acceptance that the Huskers probably won’t participate in the Big Ten tournament for the first time since joining the league.
The scenarios that would keep NU from ending its season on the earliest calendar date in nine years? Many players can’t say. They just know winning games would be a good start.
“I haven’t looked at them,” said Wilkening, a junior catcher. “I don’t look at that stuff. I just go out and play.”
Needing to finish among the top eight in the league to advance to postseason play next week in Omaha, 10th-place Nebraska (23-26, 7-12) has a tall task ahead at fifth-place Illinois (29-17, 13-8). It could win two of three and move on if Maryland and Michigan State are swept. It could take all three from the Illini and go if both the Terps and Spartans drop their final series.
Otherwise, the Huskers turn to exit interviews, summer ball and — for some — the major league draft in early June.
Coach Darin Erstad said there are positives to take from the past few months. Many underclassmen received experience they wouldn’t have otherwise. Team on-base percentage is better, .371 (98th nationally) after sitting at .364 (133rd) last year. Fielders committed three errors in the past six games. The pitching staff has averaged 2.4 walks in its past 10 games, well below its 3.6 average for the season.
“This game’s built on pitching and defense, and you have to have that to do anything for a consistent period of time,” Erstad said. “Defensively, I was disappointed with how the middle of the season went. I do think that the last month we’ve played better defensively to a level that can win ballgames. We’ve done a better job of limiting the free passes for the most part on the mound recently. So those are things that we’re looking toward the future with.”
Wilkening is an MLB draft candidate and trails only Scott Schreiber among Huskers in batting average (.364), home runs (8) and on-base percentage (.434) along with his team-best 53 RBIs. A 28th-round selection of the Arizona Diamondbacks out of high school in 2015, he said there is plenty to be optimistic about within the program.
Even if the season ends this weekend.
“We developed some good team chemistry as of late,” Wilkening said. “We’re stringing along some good hits here and there. It’s a lot more fun in the dugout. So that’s definitely some building for next year.”
Nebraska at Illinois
6 p.m. Thursday: RH Matt Waldron (6-3, 4.08 ERA) vs. RH Cyrillo Watson (1-1, 4.58)
6 p.m. Friday: RH Luis Alvarado (3-6, 4.61) vs. LH Andy Fisher (5-2, 4.18)
3 p.m. Saturday: RH Matt Warren (4-4, 5.81) vs. RH Ty Weber (4-3, 3.42)
Radio: KNCY 1600 AM, 105.5 FM Nebraska City
Scouting Nebraska (23-26, 7-12): The Huskers’ most likely path to the Big Ten tournament is to sweep the Illini and have Maryland and Iowa lose their final league series. They could also win two of three games and hope the Terps and Hawkeyes are swept. Otherwise, NU will miss the postseason for the first time under seventh-year coach Darin Erstad. … Despite a series loss to Indiana last weekend, NU has found its formula of pitching and defense recently. The team has been errorless in four of its past six games and has issued no more than four walks in each of its last five contests. … Senior first baseman Scott Schreiber (.385 average, 18 homers, 48 RBIs) and junior catcher Jesse Wilkening (.364, eight, 53) continue to strengthen their MLB draft stocks. In the last 10 games, Alex Henwood and Mojo Hagge have also come on to hit .360 and .297, respectively. … Waldron has been NU’s most consistent weekend pitcher, logging at least six innings in each of his last five starts. Alvarado followed up an eight-inning gem two weeks ago with starts of 1 1⁄3 and three innings .
Scouting Illinois (29-17, 13-8): A Big Ten tourney spot is secure, but the Illini — projected as NCAA at-large qualifiers by multiple outlets — have seeding on the line. After taking two of three from then-league-leading Michigan last weekend, they could finish anywhere from second to seventh. … Junior Bren Spillane is among the NCAA leaders in nearly every major hitting category and is on pace to break the Big Ten record for slugging in a season (.913 by Illinois’ Darrin Fletcher in 1987). Among Spillane’s national rankings: slugging (.954, first), OPS (1.475, first), home runs (20, third), batting average (.417, fourth) and on-base percentage (.521, fifth), total bases (144, sixth), RBIs (55, 30th) and doubles (17, 63rd). … Illinois has a team ERA of 3.97, 73rd nationally thanks in part to a defense that has committed nine fewer errors than any other Big Ten school (its .980 fielding percentage ranks 11th in the country). The hurlers strike out 6.7 per nine innings, good for 259th out of 297 Division I programs.
Dugout chatter: Schreiber and Spillane represent a battle of the Big Ten’s best hitters and first basemen. Spillane holds leads in batting average (.417-.385), slugging (.954-.730), on-base percentage (.521-.459), RBIs (55-48) and home runs (20-18). Schreiber has an edge in runs (59-50) and total bases (146-144). Erstad said the player of the year award could come down to this weekend. “(Schreiber) and the guy from Illinois probably are at the top of the list and we’ll see how it plays out.,” Erstad said. “Hopefully he has a huge weekend, Scott does, and leaves a good mark.” … Papillion-La Vista grad and former Southeast Community College infielder Grant Van Scoy is hitting .245 with 19 RBIs for 44 games for the Illini. … Illinois and Nebraska didn’t play last season. The Huskers won two of three in Lincoln in 2016 and the all-time series is 8-8.… Papillion’s Grant Van Scoy starts at third base and is batting .245 with 19 RBIs.