With Penn State on deck, Husker baseball eyes first conference title since 2005

With Penn State on deck, Husker baseball eyes first conference title since 2005
World-Herald News Service

LINCOLN — Derek Burkamper isn’t afraid to admit it. Never will it be more tempting to check the scoreboard than this weekend.

The Nebraska senior starting pitcher and a few teammates watched Rutgers and Minnesota play a televised makeup doubleheader Tuesday. Unfortunately for the Big Red onlookers, the Gophers swept the twin bill 6-2 and 6-0.

Those results set up a dramatic final weekend to determine the Big Ten’s regular-season champion. The most likely path for Nebraska (32-17-1, 14-6-1 Big Ten) to its first league crown since winning the Big 12 in 2005 is to sweep last-place Penn State (17-35, 3-18) and for Minnesota (32-17, 14-6) to drop at least one of its three games against a Purdue team fighting to qualify for the eight-team conference tournament next week.

The Huskers aren’t afraid to talk about their title prospects.

They were in a similar spot a season ago — they needed a sweep on the last weekend and needed Minnesota to get swept — but the Gophers didn’t hold up their end of the scenario as they finished a half-game ahead of NU to win the Big Ten.

“We’ve sort of been a part of this last year,” Burkamper said. “But this is a lot more exciting, just with all the teams that are in contention of making the tournament, winning the outright title. It’s going to be an exciting weekend and I’m looking forward to seeing who’s all in the tournament.”

Nebraska’s series begins Thursday at 5:30 p.m. and concludes with Saturday’s finale at 10 a.m. The Huskers could still secure the outright Big Ten title by losing once to the Nittany Lions, but would need Minnesota to lose its series and Michigan (14-7 league record) to fall at least once to Michigan State.

Complicating the race has been Nebraska’s tie against Indiana early in the season as well as inclement weather that will force Minnesota to finish with one less league game (23) than the Huskers. Thus, if both teams sweep this weekend, the Gophers’ 17-6 mark (a .739 winning percentage) would best NU’s 17-6-1 (.729) by percentage points despite Nebraska winning the head-to-head series.

“It’s pretty exciting; I wouldn’t say it’s just another game,” NU outfielder Luis Alvarado said. “But for us, it’s more like going pitch by pitch. It doesn’t matter who the opponent is. Just play hard every single pitch.”

Coach Darin Erstad offered a similar message as the Huskers prepared to depart from Haymarket Park on Wednesday afternoon. Sure, they’re now rated nationally by multiple publications — as high as No. 22 by Baseball America. Yes, their RPI (39) is strong for an NCAA tourney bid and they have a realistic shot at their first outright league title since 2003.

But none of it matters if Nebraska comes out flat now. The test begins Thursday against Penn State righty Sal Biasi, whose 3.34 earned-run average is tied for 11th in the league along with NU ace lefty Jake Meyers.

“All that other stuff is distractions — it doesn’t mean anything if we don’t go out and play well (Thursday),” Erstad said. “We’re facing as good an arm as there is in the Big Ten right out of the gate. If we’re worried about what the scoreboard says or worried about RPI or worried about whatever’s going on, we’re in trouble. That’s why we do things the way we do them, and nothing’s going to change.”

There are other reasons for the Huskers to be wary. First-game starter Jake Hohensee has struggled in his two previous outings against Rutgers and Michigan State. Furthermore, Penn State shocked Indiana with a 5-2 road victory last weekend.

Meyers’ status also remains uncertain for the series. The team’s regular center fielder and leadoff man — who has three stitches at the base of his left pinkie finger after getting spiked trying to steal second base May 10 at Creighton — didn’t bat at all last weekend and struggled through one of his worst career starts on the mound.

Erstad said nothing “crazy” has happened with the injury since Sunday, adding that NU plans to throw him Saturday but is taking the situation day by day.

“We’ll see what we can get out of him those other two days,” Erstad said, “if anything at all.”

Penn State bears the statistics of a struggling squad. The Nittany Lions sit last in the league in batting average (.236), slugging (.331), on-base percentage (.320), runs (207), hits and doubles, and they strike out at a clip better only than Ohio State’s. Their collective ERA of 5.76 is 12th out of 13 teams and pairs dangerously with a fielding percentage (.957) that ranks in the same place.

“It is exciting knowing we can be there in the first spot,” Alvarado said. “But like I said, we don’t look at that when we’re in the field. We’re looking at playing pitch by pitch.”

Nebraska will travel by bus to Pittsburgh after Saturday’s finale and is scheduled to attend Sunday’s Phillies-Pirates game. The team will also make a workout stop in Columbus, Ohio, before arriving in Bloomington, Indiana, early next week for the Big Ten tournament.

A disastrous showing at Penn State could knock the Huskers all the way to the No. 6 seed for that event, though a top-three finish for a fourth time in five seasons is the most realistic outcome.

“I think (a Big Ten title) is just a steppingstone,” Burkamper said. “Ever since Coach Erstad’s gotten here, he’s done a great job. Maybe it’s come a little slower than we would have hoped, but once it’s done, it’s going to be exciting and you better watch out in the future.”

Baseball: Nebraska at Penn State

When: 5:30 p.m. Thursday

Where: Medlar Field, University Park, Pa.

Radio: 1600 AM, 105.5 FM Nebraska City

Probable starters: RH Jake Hohensee (6-3, 3.80 ERA) vs. RH Sal Biasi (5-5, 3.34)

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