Strong pitching from Matt Waldron, Nate Fisher helps Huskers sweep Michigan State doubleheader

LINCOLN — Matt Waldron and Nate Fisher think they can set the weekend tone for Nebraska every time out.

The starting pitchers did it in one day Friday.

The Huskers rode the pair of senior aces to a doubleheader sweep of Michigan State, prevailing 4-1 and 5-2 to open Big Ten play. Waldron fired a two-hitter in his second career complete game. Fisher threw 7 1⁄3 innings of one-run ball in the nightcap in front of 4,545 at Haymarket Park.

Mixing fastballs and change-ups proved a successful M.O. for both Nebraska natives, neither of whom walked a batter. The defense played error-free behind them, and the offense took advantage of key Michigan State mistakes to pull away in each contest.

Nebraska (10-7, 2-0 Big Ten) has won four straight games after failing to string together more than three all of last season. The series finale is set for 1:05 p.m. Sunday.

Waldron was outstanding in the Friday opener. He allowed only one hit through the first six innings, but that came when Adam Proctor hammered an 0-1 pitch over the wall in right for his fourth homer of the spring. The only other threat the Spartans mounted was getting a man to second base after a leadoff single in the seventh.

The long ball helped the former Omaha Westside hurler to refocus.

“I think I kind of got a little upset, actually, and started to fill up the zone a little more,” he said. The right-hander threw 80 of his 102 pitches for strikes and struck out six to move into the top 10 for career strikeouts at Nebraska (192). Waldron coaxed nine outs via ground balls and 12 through the air in the game that took just 2 hours, 18 minutes.

“He looks a little stronger and he’s maintaining his stuff,” NU coach Darin Erstad said. “With his command and his ability to mix pitches and the stuff being a hair better, I think that’s what you’re seeing.”

But Michigan State righty Mason Erla was up to the challenge most of the way. Double plays in the fourth and fifth erased potential Husker rallies, and the visitors led 1-0 into the bottom of the sixth.

Then NU broke through. A Mojo Hagge leadoff walk and steal set up Aaron Palensky’s RBI double. An inning later, a likely inning-ending double-play grounder to second base was booted and later turned into three runs. Nebraska took its first lead on a bases-loaded walk by Angelo Altavilla and added on with a Palensky sacrifice fly and a Keegan Watson run-scoring single.

The Huskers led throughout game two. Colby Gomes, a freshman from Millard West, drove in three runs — two coming on a two-out RBI single in the first — and collected his fourth save of the spring. Palensky plated a pair in the sixth with a smash up the middle, completing the damage against MSU left-handed starter Mitchell Tyranski.

“Swing as hard as I can just in case I hit it,” Gomes said. “That’s kind of how it is.”

But Fisher didn’t need much support. The senior left-hander from Yutan — who took a no-hitter into the ninth inning two weeks ago at Baylor — scattered five singles and benefited from catcher Gunner Hellstrom throwing out a pair trying to steal second base. Fisher struck out three, didn’t issue a walk and allowed one run across 94 pitches.

“Stuff plays and stuff wins,” Erstad said. “When (Fisher) can pitch like he can and have stuff, it works.”

An offseason mechanical adjustment has helped Fisher in his hot start. He shortened his delivery — getting his hand more on top of his pitches — for better control and more sink to his offerings.

“I’m always just trying to be like Matt, I guess,” he said with a grin.

Michigan State (3-17, 0-2) trailed 5-0 but rallied against reliever Robbie Palkert in the eighth. Two RBI singles with the bases loaded put the Spartans on the board before cleanup hitter Royce Ando struck out.

Gomes pitched the ninth, securing a groundout with the bases loaded to end the 2-hour, 43-minute affair.

“It all starts on that bump out there. We know that,” Erstad said. “They did a nice job today.”

Darin Erstad’s focus on Huskers, not ‘top or bottom’ of Big Ten, as conference play starts

LINCOLN — Darin Erstad isn’t too shy to say it. He has no idea how other Big Ten baseball teams are doing this spring.

Schedule changes and injuries have given the Nebraska coach enough to think about beyond his normal duties. So he doesn’t know last year’s Big Ten regular-season and tournament champion, Minnesota (5-13), is struggling on its current 21-game road swing. He isn’t aware that Illinois (14-4) is off to one of its best starts in program history. He might be surprised to learn that Penn State (13-3) has the best win percentage among league teams after going a combined 33-71 the last two years.

“Being in the Big Ten, you can throw out records, you can throw out stats,” Erstad said. “It’s been a grind every single year. You don’t know who’s going to end up on top or the bottom. You just gotta play well every weekend, otherwise you’re going to get beat.”

Michigan State (3-15) is up first for Nebraska (8-7) as the Huskers embark on their eighth season in the conference. The Spartans rank among the worst nationally and in the Big Ten in most major statistical categories and will conclude a run of 21 straight games away from home at Haymarket Park beginning with Friday’s doubleheader.

If nothing else, the Huskers are battle tested as league play begins. Their strength of schedule ranks ninth in the country, and they own three wins over Top 25 teams. The nonconference slate will give them more chances to boost their postseason résumé in May when Arizona State — the only remaining unbeaten Division I team at 20-0 — visits Lincoln.

Erstad said the last month could have been even tougher if not for canceled games against now-No. 2 Mississippi State (one) and New Mexico State (three) along with a pair of midweek contests. But Nebraska has still begun to see its identity take shape.

“We feel like we’ve found places for people and know what guys can do,” Erstad said. “It’s just a work in progress.”

The Huskers missed qualifying for the eight-team Big Ten tournament last year for the first time when they finished 10th. They placed fourth or better five of the other six seasons under Erstad, including a regular-season title in 2017.

League scheduling rotations mean schools face eight of the other 12 programs each season. Nebraska this spring will miss Ohio State (10-10), Indiana (12-8), Maryland (12-8) and Rutgers (5-12).

Senior second baseman Alex Henwood returned for the midweek finale against Air Force on Wednesday with the goal of playing in the Big Ten opener. He’s seeing a group more devoted to the details as the meat of the season arrives.

“I think every week we’re locking in more and more on picking up things early in the dugout, picking up pitchers early,” Henwood said. “(We’re) staying committed to the little things that we’ve had emphasized to us week in and week out.”

* * *

Michigan State at Nebraska

Where: Haymarket Park, Lincoln

Radio: KNCY 1600 AM, 105.5 FM

Game 1, 3:05 p.m. Friday: RH Matt Waldron (2-0, 2.25 ERA) vs. RH Mason Erla (1-3, 7.46)

Game 2, Friday: LH Nate Fisher (2-1, 3.15) vs. LH Mitchell Tyranski (0-3, 4.67)

Game 3, 2:05 p.m. Saturday: TBA vs. LH Jarret Olson (0-2, 6.43)

Scouting Nebraska (8-7): A pair of injuries will force adjustments for the Huskers in their Big Ten-opening series. Projected weekend starter Connor Curry (elbow) went down two weeks ago and will be out an extended period, leaving Big Red with a to-be-announced Sunday rotation spot. Meanwhile, freshman shortstop Spencer Schwellenbach (ankle) will be out after landing on first base awkwardly running down the line Wednesday. Senior Angelo Altavilla will slide over from third, with freshman Cam Chick likely to man the hot corner. … Waldron and Fisher have been NU’s most reliable hurlers this season. Their earned-run averages are both among the top 16 B1G hurlers with at least 20 innings pitched. … NU has hit at least .280 with runners in scoring position in each of its last three series. Its number is .340 overall this spring while opponents are hitting .277 in those situations. … NU enters Friday with a strength of schedule ranking ninth and an RPI of 22 according to warrennolan.com.

Scouting Michigan State (3-15): The Spartans have dropped five straight, including a four-game sweep against Connecticut, and won’t play in their own ballpark this season until Wednesday. They’ve also been swept by a pair of ranked schools in Coastal Carolina and Arizona State. … Perhaps the nicest thing one can say about MSU is their pitchers are decent at striking out batters (8.9 per nine innings, 97th nationally). The major numbers are all unsightly: ERA of 6.91 (254th out of 297 Division I teams), fielding percentage of .957 (240th) and 3.7 runs per game (269th). … Erla, a sophomore, has emerged as the Spartans’ ace, and last year’s All-Big Ten Freshman Team honoree will be making his 23rd career start. Tyranski and Olson have combined to make five career starts entering the weekend. … Second baseman Royce Ando (.321) and outfielder Bryce Kelley (.314) are MSU’s top hitters by average. Shortstop Marty Bechina and catcher Adam Proctor represent the biggest power threats with three homers apiece.

Dugout chatter: Friday’s action became a doubleheader because of adverse weather projected for the weekend. The twinbill won’t start earlier because flooding around Omaha will delay the umpires’ arrival. The intent is to play the finale Saturday afternoon, though that game could also move to Sunday. … Nebraska’s 13-12 home record last season was its worst in the 17-year history of Haymarket Park. The Huskers are 2-0 this spring. … Big Red leads the all-time series with the Spartans 10-8. MSU won both games last year in East Lansing by a combined score of 22-8.

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