What. A. Weekend. There were sweeps, rivalry contests and two Sunday walk-offs which lead to a new clubhouse leader atop the Big Ten standings. Here’s the weekend’s headlines and storylines.
Huskers power to the top
It wasn’t the prettiest weekend, but Nebraska did what they have consistently done since Big Ten play started: win. Claiming all three games against Rutgers, the Cornhuskers moved to the top of the Big Ten standings with their 12-5-1 conference clip, taking dead aim at the program’s first ever Big Ten championship.
On Friday, the Huskers weathered a late-inning rally by the Scarlet Knights to win, 8-5. Though their Big Ten record stands at 5-10, Rutgers hasn’t been a pushover, taking a road series at Iowa and winning the series opener against Michigan. In the opener against the Huskers, the visitors made the hosts work.
Rutgers grabbed the initial 1-0 in the top of the first, but Nebraska responded with a two-spot in their first at-bat. The 2-1 scored held until Nebraska scored six runs in the middle innings, a four-run fifth inning powering the way. But Rutgers, who out-hit the Huskers, made a last-ditch effort, crossing home three times in the seventh and once in the ninth to close the scoring. The top of the Husker order, Jake Meyers and Angelo Altavilla, both went 3-for-4 with two runs, while three-hole batter Scott Schreiber was the benefactor of their on-base ability, driving in three runs in two hits, including his fifth home run of the season.
The middle innings were again the deciding stretch in the second game of the series as Nebraska cruised to a 9-3 victory. After tallying a run in the first inning for a second consecutive game, the Huskers doubled their lead with a run in third. Darin Erstad’s team seized full control of the game with a five-run fourth. The two clubs traded two-run at-bats in the sixth before Rutgers capped the day’s scoring with a run in the ninth. Rutgers kept Schreiber in the year, on Saturday, but he picked up two more hits and crossed home twice, as did Meyers and Altavilla. Senior right-handed pitcher Derek Burkamper made the early run support stand, allowing two runs over 6.1 innings, scattering two hits. Sophomore center fielder Jawuan Harris lead Rutgers on the afternoon with a 2-for-4 day, driving in two runs and hitting his team-best eighth home run of the year. Second baseman Carmen Sclafani recorded three hits in four at-bats to match the feat of Scarlet Knight teammate Nick Matera.
On the third Sunday of the season, Nebraska entered the day 2-6. The Huskers road to being in the NCAA Tournament picture hasn’t been easy. So it’s fitting the game that led to the Huskers’ perched on top of the Big Ten standings was far from a walk in the park.
Again, Nebraska enjoyed a 1-0 lead after the first inning. But unlike the previous two games, Nebraska looked to take control in their next at-bat, no waiting until the middle innings, scoring three runs in the second. Rutgers halved the deficit with two runs in the third, but Nebraska scored a run in the fifth and another in the sixth to regain their four-run cushion. All seemed in Nebraska’s favor until a rocky eighth.
With junior left-handed pitcher Jake Meyers entering his eighth frame of the game, Rutgers freshman shortstop Kevin Welsh reached base on an error. Back-to-back one-out singles advanced, then scored Welsh, cutting the deficit to 6-3 and bring the tying run to the plate in the form of senior right fielder Tom Marcinczyk. Marcinczyk not only represented the tying run, he became the tying run with a first-pitch, three-run home run to right field, chasing Meyers and resetting the game.
With conference leaders Maryland trailing at Illinois, the opportunity was there for Nebraska to take reign with a win. They did that in dramatic fashion.
Held scoreless in the bottom of the eighth, closer Chad Luensmann kept Rutgers from taking the lead with a scoreless ninth. Hitless in three at-bats, Schreiber singled to center to open the ninth. After a pop-out, Nebraska kept the sacrifice bunt on with pinch-hitting Brison Cronenbold successfully advancing Schreiber to second. With two down and Schr0ieber in scoring position, Altavilla hit a full count pitch into center fielder, scoring Schreiber to send Nebraska to a 7-6 victory, weekend sweep, and moments later first place in the conference.
Illini trip up Terps
Nebraska moved into first as Maryland lost their weekend series at Illinois. While the Illini may be a year away from competing for a Big Ten championship of their own, they’re starting to play the role of spoiler, but are also entering the mix for a spot in the Big Ten Tournament, keeping alive the prospect the 2017 season can bring one title to Champaign.
In the series opener, Maryland overwhelmed Illinois in a 9-4 win. The Terps jumped out in front, 8-0, after three innings and rode the steady arm of Brian Shaffer to victory. With all but one Terrapin recording a hit, and the lone player who did not, Will Watson, drawing three walks, the kids from College Park provided Shaffer with more than enough support. The right-handed pitched eight innings, allowing four runs, two earned, off eight hits. Illini freshman right-hander Ty Weber only lasted 2.1 innings, surrendering more runs, eight, than outs gathered, seven.
But the roles reversed on Saturday. Freshman right-handed pitcher Cyrillo Watson made easy work of the Terps, pitching seven innings of two-run baseball, allowing just one earned run off five hits. It was the Maryland freshman arm who ran into trouble early. The Illini tagged Tyler Blohm for six runs off six hits in 2.2 innings, using a six-run third to carry the day. In the crooked inning, left fielder Bren Spillane recorded a two-out, bases-clearing double to put the game away. After Watson rocked Maryland to sleep, freshman left-hander Ryan Schmitt closed the door with two innings of perfect relief.
Where Maryland had control of game one, and Illinois rolled to a game two win, the series finale was a back-and-forth affair, worthy of causing a change of guard atop the Big Ten table.
On a clear afternoon, with a slight breeze, the conditions were favorable for an offensive day and neither team disappointed. With 10 hits to a side, nine extra-base hits were racked up, including five home runs. A long ball from Illini freshman second baseman Michael Massey put the hosts in front, 1-0 in the second, a lead that grew to 4-0 in the fifth. Runs in the sixth and seventh cut Illinois’ lead in half, bringing the score to 4-2. But immediately after the stretch, senior first baseman Pat McInerney put the Illini back in front by four runs with his 13th home run of the season, a two-run shot.
That would not be it for the home run. In the top of the ninth, after second baseman Nick Dunn drove in two runs with a double off of the right field wall, to again bring Maryland within two runs, Will Watson, who homered in the sixth to account for Maryland’s run, lined his second homer of the game over the right center field wall to knot the game, 6-6.
That still would not be it for the home run. After a leadoff walk, a fly out and strikeout were recorded to bring the game to its final out. Though the scored was tied, the teams were seven minutes over Maryland’s travel curfew. But there would not be a second tie game in this Big Ten season with sophomore Mark Skonieczny homering to left field, walk-off the game and giving the Illini a critical weekend win.
A tight battle for the top, tourney spots
With Nebraska sweeping Rutgers and Maryland falling to Illinois, the top of the Big Ten standings look like a six-car pile-up. But it’s equally congested in the battle for eighth place, the final spot in the Big Ten Tournament.
With two weekends to go, the Huskers have the inside track to their first Big Ten championship. If Nebraska wins out, they’re the conference champs. But, even if the Huskers suffer a loss, they still have the edge. If Nebraska goes 5-1, the Huskers would finish the Big Ten slate 17-6-1, only a 5-0 finish by Minnesota would best Nebraska’, the Gophers would finish with a .739 winning percentage, to Nebraska’s .729. But, if Nebraska scuffles twice, the door opens for Indiana, Iowa, Maryland and Michigan, each of those four teams sit within two games of the Huskers.
The Big Ten recognizes co-champions if there is a tie atop the standings. But for tiebreaker purposes heading into the Big Ten Tournament, here’s who hold’s the head-to-head advantages of other top-six teams.
Nebraska: Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota.
Indiana: Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota.
Tiebreakers may help seed the top half of the conference when they head to Bloomington, but they may be more important in the race for the eighth and final spot in the Big Ten Tournament. Last year, Illinois, Iowa and Penn State all finished 12-12 in conference play, but the Hawkeyes own head-to-head tiebreakers to enter the tournament before making a run to the conference championship game.
In the battle for eight, Michigan State is currently in the field with an 8-10 record. Northwestern also holds an 8-10 conference mark, but Michigan State grabbed two of three games in Evanston, April 28-29. The Spartans are fortuitous they have fared well in Illinois, as they also own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Illini, who they swept March 24-26. With their weekend win over Maryland, Illinois is now within a game of Michigan State in the standings at 7-11. Between the Illini and Wildcats, Illinois has the head-to-head tiebreaker, by way winning the weekend series in Champaign, April 14-16.
Hoosiers continue to roll
Exactly a month ago, Indiana entered the day 15-13-2 on the season, coming off of a second straight loss to in-state rival Purdue. But the last month has seen IU go from missing a second straight NCAA Tournament to a near lock for their four regional appearance in five years.
The Hoosiers continued their hot run over the weekend, stepping out of conference play to welcome Xavier to Bloomington.
Sweeping the Musketeers, Indiana improved to 27-17-2 on the year, winning for the 12th time in 16 games. In dispatching the Big East foe, the Hoosiers showed a bit of everything, pitching, defense and offensive fireworks.
On Friday, Jonathan Stiever shined in a pitcher’s duel. Stiever tossed 7.2 innings of scoreless, five-hit baseball, outdueling XU’s Zac Lowther, who allowed one run off four hits in six innings, striking out 11. The lone blemish on Lowther’s record was a third-inning home run by Indiana second baseman Tony Butler, the deciding hit in IU’s 1-0 victory. The Hoosiers had no trouble finding the offense on Saturday, dialing up 16 hits, seven for extra bases, in a 14-3 romp. Junior right fielder Logan Sowers collected a double and home run in four at-bats. Indiana completed the weekend sweep with an 11-7 win on Sunday, holding off Xavier who scored all of their runs over the final two innings.
Heading into a midweek showdown at top-1o Kentucky, Indiana has the best RPI in the Big Ten, according to Warren Nolan, at No. 24, and show no signs of slowing down as postseason play nears.
Racking up the punchouts
There was a slew of gaudy strikeout totals in dominant pitching performances across the conference this weekend, providing several pitcher of the week candidates. While the conference’s weekly honor went to Michigan junior left-handed pitcher Oliver Jaskie, who struck out 14 Buckeyes in a seven-hit shutout over Ohio State on Friday, he was far from alone in lighting up the K-counter.
In seven innings, Minnesota junior left-handed pitcher Lucas Gilbreath struck out 10 batters, conceding just an unearned run, in the Gophers’ 6-5 win over Penn State on Friday.
Maryland junior right-handed pitcher Brian Shaffer struck out eight over eight innings in Maryland’s 9-4 win over Illinois, Friday.
Nebraska junior right-handed pitcher Jake Hohensee struck out 10 in 6.2 innings, leading Nebraska to a 8-5 win over Rutgers in the series opener.
On Saturday, freshman right-handed pitcher Brett Schulze picked up where his Gopher teammate, Gilbreath, left off. Schulze struck out eight batters in seven inning, surrendering just one run as Minnesota clinched the series with a 17-1 win.
Michigan State junior right-handed pitcher Jake Lowery lead the Spartans to a series-evening, 2-1 victory over Iowa on Saturday. Without issuing a walk, Lowery struck out nine batters, allowing just an unearned run off five hits.
Down I-96 from East Lansing, in Ann Arbor, junior right-handed pitcher Alec Rennard struck out eight in seven innings, giving up just one run off five hits as the Wolverines clinched the weekend win over Ohio State with a 5-2 victory.