Nebraska baseball needs strong finish to regular season to qualify for league tournament

Nebraska baseball needs strong finish to regular season to qualify for league tournament
Scott Schreiber is second in the Big Ten with a .392 batting average and is tied for the league lead with 16 home runs, but the Huskers are 2½ games out of eighth place — and the final tournament spot — in the Big Ten. (World-Herald News Service)

LINCOLN — This has been an easy finals week for Scott Schreiber. Just one exam, and it wasn’t even cumulative.

But the Nebraska senior and his teammates, many of whom have navigated much more challenging days recently, are preparing for a big test this weekend against Maryland. Pass, and postseason hope endures. Fail, and the Big Ten tournament in Omaha later this month probably won’t include the host school.

“Everyone knows this is an important weekend,” Schreiber said. “We need to start winning games. We need to win conference games. We need to make it into that tournament. You approach it the same as any other game. I know it’s easier said than done, but that’s what you gotta do.”

Nebraska (20-22, 4-9 Big Ten) and Maryland (19-25, 5-9) are outsiders as they seek to qualify for the eight-team tournament that begins May 23. Eighth-place Michigan State has a lead of two games on the Terps and 2½ on the Huskers, with Rutgers 1½ games out. The Huskers host No. 15 Indiana next weekend before traveling to fourth-place Illinois for the regular-season finale.

“To just say what it is, yeah, the playoffs start (Friday) for us,” Nebraska coach Darin Erstad said. “We put ourselves in that position, so our postseason starts (Friday). We’re playing for our lives here to even get into our conference tournament. Our guys know that.”

In picking up their first sweep in nearly a year last weekend against Mountain West-leading Nevada, the Huskers looked more like the Big Ten champions they were a year ago. Their pitchers walked one batter in 27 innings. Their fielders committed just four errors and their hitters enjoyed one of their more clutch weekends, going 15 of 43 (.349) with runners in scoring position.

Erstad shook up the lineup, elevating Schreiber to the leadoff spot for the opener ahead of Jesse Wilkening and freshman Gunner Hellstrom in a new-look order. The bottom third also began producing, going 9 for 28 (.321) on the weekend with six RBIs, seven walks and 10 runs scored among eight players.

“It can jolt different guys, too, because you’re hitting at a different spot, you get a different mindset,” sophomore infielder Luke Roskam said. “It’s just a different routine for everyone. It changes a lot of things. Guys hit well. We played well. It helped. It looked like it helped, at least.”

“Jolt” also was a term Erstad used in explaining why the pitching rotation will look different going forward. Matt Waldron (3.60 ERA in 30 league innings) has been Nebraska’s best starter in Big Ten play, which is why he will draw a Friday start for the first time this year. Luis Alvarado (4.56 ERA in 25⅔ league innings) moves back a day to Saturday while Sunday is a to-be-announced game as senior Matt Warren (5.28) shifts to the bullpen.

“Obviously we’re down at the bottom (of the standings) right now,” Roskam said of his squad, which sits 11th of 13 Big Ten teams. “I think it takes a lot of pressure off us because we can’t really lose anything. We only have so much to gain by going out and playing as hard as we can.”

Maryland at Nebraska

When: 6:05 p.m. Friday, 1:30 p.m. Saturday, 12:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Haymarket Park, Lincoln

Radio: KNCY 1600 AM, 105.5 FM

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