Nebraska coaches and players shared a sort of gallows humor in the moments after their worst outing in more than a month.
A check of the box score from their 18-8 loss to Michigan on Saturday morning in the Big Ten tournament semifinals revealed the gruesome details. Six errors? A seven-run first inning by the Wolverines? No clutch hitting?
“It was almost so bad the first game you could almost laugh about it a little bit,” Nebraska coach Darin Erstad said.
When a large partisan crowd reconvened at TD Ameritrade Park a few hours later, the Huskers performed more like potential postseason league champions.
With “Go Big Red!” chants reverberating through the stands and more than 11,000 in attendance, the Huskers rebounded from the 10-run defeat by knocking out the second-seeded Wolverines 7-3 in an elimination semifinal. Freshman Spencer Schwellenbach drove in three runs while starter Kyle Perry and Robbie Palkert combined to hold down the league’s second-leading scoring offense.
Fifth-seeded Nebraska (31-21) advances to the tourney final for the first time in five years. It will face either fourth-seeded Minnesota or seventh-seeded Ohio State on Sunday afternoon one hour after that 11 a.m. semifinal ends. Nebraska is searching for its first-ever Big Ten postseason title.
“We all took that and played our hearts out this game,” Schwellenbach said. “I think it really paid off that we just shrugged that off and didn’t really think about that (first game) too much.”
A two-run top of the sixth broke a 3-3 tie to send the Huskers on their way. Joe Acker walked on four pitches, moved to second base on a sacrifice bunt and later scored on Jaxon Hallmark’s first-pitch double to left-center. Aaron Palensky’s bases-loaded walk later in the inning forced in another run as the standing crowd roared.
In its fourth game of the week, Nebraska turned to the 19-year-old freshman Perry to start in what was his first action of any kind in a month. The left-hander from Millard South allowed one run in 3⅓ innings, giving up only a two-out RBI single to Jesse Franklin in the third after two clean innings.
“If you’re going down, go down with your best stuff,” Erstad said. “We’re not backing down. Our boys didn’t back down at all.”
Palkert, a junior ace reliever, entered with two on and one out in the fourth with a 2-1 lead and promptly escaped with a strikeout and groundout. Michigan tagged him for two runs in the fifth to tie the game 3-3 — three straight singles, a hit batter and Jimmy Kerr sacrifice fly did the damage — but the righty retired 11 of the next 12 hitters and came within an out of finishing the victory.
What was working for Palkert?
“Nothing,” he said. He couldn’t locate his fastball or changeup early in counts. He pulled pitches to his glove side and cut his fastballs. But a talk with fellow pitcher Nate Fisher reminded him that he — and these Huskers, really — are all about mentality.
“You may not have your best stuff that day,” Palkert said. “It’s all upstairs, though. You gotta compete. You gotta continue to attack on the rubber. That’s your rubber. You gotta own it, get up there and puff your chest out. Once that batter steps in that box it’s nine on one.”
He lasted a career-high 5⅔ innings and 95 pitches in all, saving the rest of the ‘pen for Sunday’s title game. The Wolverines loaded the bases with two outs before Colby Gomes entered for the one-out save.
Michigan’s pitching corps was even more depleted after working back through the losers’ bracket earlier in the week and started sophomore southpaw Angelo Smith for the fourth time this spring. Smith went a career-long 4⅔ innings backed by a lively slider.
But Schwellenbach got to him twice in two-out spots. His two-run single with the bases loaded in the third put NU ahead 2-0, then the freshman laced a ball to left-center for an RBI in the fifth to push the lead to 3-1.
Schwellenbach is 7 for 16 (.438) with nine RBIs in four tournament games.
“They bring the energy for us,” Schwellenbach said of the crowd.
The Huskers added a pair of insurance runs in the eighth on a throwing error and Alex Henwood bases-loaded walk. They generated more than enough offense despite stranding runners in every inning and 15 overall.
Nebraska nearly lost the first game by the 10-run rule less than 24 hours after celebrating a victory in that fashion over Iowa. Michigan pounded out 19 overall hits — 16 of them singles — and chased senior starter Reece Eddins after the first two batters reached base in the second.
The Wolverines hammered the back of the Husker bullpen in a six-run sixth to bring the mercy rule into range. That came after Eddins endured the worst appearance of his career — and Big Red allowed its second most runs in an inning this year — in a nightmarish first frame. Five of Michigan’s eight hits in the rally drove in runs, with two-RBI singles from Jimmy Kerr and Jordan Nwogu serving as big blows.
Eddins threw just 45 pitches in one-plus inning, allowing nine hits and eight runs while walking one. In a start against Michigan earlier this month, the righty logged five innings and gave up five runs.
Senior Ethan Frazier followed in relief with a career-long outing of 4⅓ innings and was charged with two runs (one earned). As he ate up outs, he said he felt momentum — at least momentum on offense — tilting back toward Nebraska heading into the evening contest.
“Our hitters today never gave up and I think that’s one of our strengths as a team,” Frazier said after the first game. “…I think you guys should all see that in this next game where we continue to take some of that momentum and keep on getting better at-bats like we saw later on in the game.”
The big lead took the pressure off Michigan freshman Walker Cleveland in his second career start. After three scoreless frames, the Huskers got to him in the fourth with a pair of RBI groundouts from Joe Acker and Colby Gomes. Aaron Palensky and Spencer Schwellenbach launched back-to-back solo homers in the fifth, marking the second time in the nine-year history of TD Ameritrade Park that teammates homered in consecutive at-bats.
Michigan countered in the sixth with six runs punctuated by a Nwogu two-run blast to left. NU used three relievers in the frame as it fell behind 15-4.
After everything, Erstad said, a chance for a Big Ten tournament title would “check one of the boxes” for the program.
“Is it an end-all be-all for me? No,” Erstad said. “But I’m all about those experiences for those teams. I want things that they’re going to talk about five, 10, 20 years from now, that when they have the reunion, that’s what they talk about. I’d love them to have that opportunity. I don’t know what’s going to happen but I know those guys are going to fight to the end.”
Big Ten Championship: Nebraska vs. Ohio State or Minnesota
When: 3 p.m. Sunday (Time subject to change)
Where: TD Ameritrade Park, Omaha
Radio: 1600 AM, 105.5 FM in Nebraska City