Huskers still in search for winning ways

Not possessing a killer instinct, timidness or a lack of competitiveness, there are options for how one may describe Nebraska’s inability to come through with a big hit in a key situation, capitalize on opportunities provided and play winning baseball. And each one was how head coach Darin Erstad described his team’s offensive performance on Friday night, falling to Utah, 7-5. The loss dropped Nebraska to 1-3 on the season while Utah improved to 4-1.

“It was a game we had a chance to win,” Erstad said. “They got the big hits and we didn’t.”

As Nebraska did in Thursday’s 10-1 loss to Oregon State, the Huskers fell behind right off the of bat, but this time the team fought back.

After Utah loaded the bases on back-to-back singles and a walk off Nebraska started Derek Burkamper, the Utes put the first run on the board with the third single of the inning. A strikeout and fly out to center allowed Burkamper to exit the inning with no further damage. When his teammates stepped to the plate, they reset the game for the senior right-hander.

Leadoff batter Jake Meyers singled up the middle on the first pitch of the game by Ute Jayson Rose. A stolen base and fielder’s choice moved Meyers to third with two outs. Junior DH Scott Schreiber drew a walk before Luis Alvarado singled to left field to plate Meyers and tie the game, 1-1. Nebraska had an opportunity to take the lead and put space between them and the Utes when Jake Schleppenbach walked to load the bases, but a pop up to center off the bat of Alex Raburn ended the inning with the bases loaded.

The three runners left on base would be a sign of things to come for the Cornhuskers.

Both teams sent three batters to the plate in the second inning, in a scoreless inning. In the top of the third, three consecutive singles to start the inning led to a pair of Utah runs. Where the Utes made the most of their baserunners, Nebraska did not.

Three consecutive walks to open the home-half of the third loaded the bases for Nebraska. But two strikeouts around a fly out to left field saw the threat evaporate as quickly as it mounted. For a second time in three innings the Huskers left the bases loaded.

“They’re timid. You can tell they weren’t aggressive,” Erstad said. “Those are the parts of the game that swing either way, we weren’t able to do it.”

In their very next at-bat Nebraska had an opportunity to atone for the failed upon opportunity.

Nate Fisher relieved Burkamper and tossed an eight-pitch 1-2-3 inning to quickly bring the Huskers back to the plate. A one-out double to left center field by third baseman Angelo Altavilla put a runner in scoring position. Meyer collected his second single to center field to put the tying run on base, before moving to second on a full count walk drawn by right field Mojo Hagge. With the bases loaded for the third time Nebraska had it’s three-hole and cleanup batters up. But like Houdini, Rose escaped yet another jam, striking out Ben Miller and Schreiber. Again, Rose sat down Nebraska with three runners left on base to the displeasure of Erstad.

“You have to smell blood in those situations. I thought we had a good opportunity, to get to a good pitcher in those situations, we didn’t take advantage of it.”

After respectively batting .325 and .317 in 2016, Schreiber and Miller have struggled in starting out the 2017 season. Schreiber, a top draft prospect after a 16-home run sophomore season and Miller, returning to school after being selected in the 32nd round of June’s draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates, are a combined six-for-33 on the season. The season is young, only four games deep, but what’s to come in June may be shaping what has happened in February.

“Right now we have some guys in their own heads a little bit, trying to have the seasons they’re supposed to have,” Erstad said. “I just want to get back to the bottom line of competing.”

Though Nebraska left nine runners on through the first four innings, they did find a way to claw back in the fifth.

With two outs, senior shortstop Alex Raburn singled to his Utah counterpart in front of catcher Brady Childs drawing a walk. This time the inning would not end with multiple Huskers on base as Altavilla hit a towering double to the left field corner, tying the game, 3-3.

The score held until the seventh when a two-out single to right field scored a runner at second and a runner at first. The latter runner crossing home ahead of a throw, a tally none too pleasing for Erstad.

“We had first and second two outs, there’s a single and the guy scores from first. I didn’t think there was much sense of urgency when it came to taking care of the baseball there. Those are things we have to clean up.”

But the Husker showed their mettle in rallying in the seventh, again behind the bat of Altavilla.

Leadoff singles by Alvarado and Schleppenbach put two Huskers on with nobody out. A sacrifice bunt by Raburn put them both in scoring position, where two batters they scored on a two-out double to right field by Altavilla. Seeing action in just 14 games in 2016, the sophomore finished the game 4-for-4 with three doubles and four RBI.

“We’re getting good at playing from behind, which is not a good thing to do,” Erstad said. “You want to go out and set the tone, you can continue to play from behind, it’s impossible to play good baseball that way.”

Nebraska was unable to follow Alatavaill’s seventh base of the game with another hit to take a lead for the first time in the game. Meyers popped out to shortstop to end the innings as the Huskers settled for squaring the game for the third different time. But that would be the final time the score was level. Two Utah singles, a walk and sacrifice bunt led to the winning run scoring for the Utes in the eighth, before they tacked on an insurance run in the ninth for the 7-5 victory.

At the game’s end, 16 hits led to seven Utah runs while 11 hits produced five Nebraska runs. Each team left 11 runners on base, but the multiple bases loaded situations left Erstad wanting his club to get back to one thing: competing.

“I don’t think we’re competing like we can and that’s going to be our focus going into tomorrow.”

On a pitch count in his 2017 debut, Burkamper pitched three innings, allowing three runs off six hits, walking one batter with three strikeouts. Utah starting pitcher Jayson Rose pitched 4.2 innings, allowing three runs off six hits and seven walks, striking out six batters. Nebraska reliever Reece Eddins received the loss, allowing three runs in 1.2 innings, yielding six hits while walking two batters. Utah first baseman Hunter Simmons led the Utes at the plate going 4-for-4 with three RBI.

Nebraska returns to action in the Big Ten – Pac-12 Baseball Challenge with a Saturday afternoon contest against #5 Oregon State. The Beavers suffered their first loss of the season on Friday, falling to Ohio State 6-1. First pitch is set for 4:30 p.m. MT.

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